The disenfranchised grief of involuntary childlessness: A living loss that society dismisses: a talk by Jody Day, psychotherapist, author and founder of 'Gateway Women'
Delivered 4th March 2021 for York University’s ‘Grief: A Human Emotional Experience’ – a 4-year AHRC-funded project for the Department of Philosophy, University of York, UK. The overarching aim of ‘Grief: A Study of Human Emotional Experience’ is to develop a detailed, wide-ranging, and integrated account of what it is to experience grief, focusing on aspects of grief that are of considerable theoretical and practical importance but remain poorly understood. For more about the project go to: www.griefyork.com
Extract: On average, one in five women in the developed world is reaching midlife without children, 90 per cent of those not by choice, with the greater part of them childless by ‘circumstance’ rather than infertility. There are similar, if not greater numbers of childless men too. Yet despite these figures (which often come as a surprise to many), the experience of involuntary childlessness is a silent one and the non-death grief of childlessness is often missed or dismissed by grievers themselves, their families and communities, and often, sadly, by the helping professionals around them too. The grief of involuntary childlessness is a form of what Doka (1989) termed ‘disenfranchised grief’ – a grief which is not socially recognised or acceptable. In this talk, psychotherapist, author and childless campaigner Jody Day, who has worked individually and online with thousands of childless women over the last decade through her organisation ‘Gateway Women’, will share what she has learned about how to understand, support and advocate for those grieving this ‘living loss’.
Short link to share this page with others: bit.ly/gw-grief-lecture
To see this video on the University of York project: https://www.griefyork.com/videos.html
Link to share just the YouTube video: https://youtu.be/y15Z8NE6lo8
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF TALK (REFERENCES AT END)
DR. EMILY HUGHES: Jody has worked individually and online with thousands of childless women over the last decade through her organisation Gateway Women. She is a TEDx speaker and former Fellow in Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School. This afternoon she will share with us what she’s learned about how to understand, support and advocate for those grieving the living loss of involuntary childlessness. I would like to warmly welcome Jody to speak with us now. Thanks Jody.
JODY DAY: Thanks Emily. First of all, can I say thank you to York University for inviting me to give this lecture as part of the project “Grief: A Study of Human Emotional Experience” and to Professor Matthew Ratcliffe, Dr Louise Richardson, Dr Emily Hughes, Dr Becky Millar and Eleanor Byrne for creating this incredibly important project which I hope will bring the study of grief to a much wider audience.
This lecture is going to cover a very brief overview and introduction to me, an introduction to the experience of involuntary childlessness in which I aim to introduce you to some of the key facts and factors to illustrate this huge but marginalised group of society. In the main section of the lecture, ‘The Disenfranchised Grief of Involuntary Childlessness’, I aim to share with you the unique complexity of the grieving process for the involuntarily childless, how disenfranchised grief operates and the challenges that can place both on the involuntarily childless and the community around them.
I’ll conclude with some reflections on grief as a human experience, and some hopes for the future. Much of the data is drawn from my book, Living the Life Unexpected where it is academically referenced and other references will be in an accompanying slide which will be added to the recording later.
Who is Jody Day?
I’m an integrative psychotherapist who has worked individually and collectively, both in-person and online, with thousands of childless women over the last decade. I’m the Founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for involuntarily childless women, with a global reach of around 2-million.
I’m the author of Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children. I am considered to be the global thought leader on female involuntary childlessness. I was chosen by the BBC as one of 100 Women to represent the 100th anniversary of feminism in 2013. As well as being a former founding and board member at Ageing Well Without Children, I am a former Fellow in Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School at Cambridge University. I’m a proud World Childless Week Champion and PLICA (Australia) ambassador. I am often referred to as the ‘Patron Saint of Childlessness’ or more recently the ‘Elder Stateswoman of Childlessness’ but my most recent and favourite has got to the ‘Beyonce of Childlessness’!
I moved from London a few years ago to live in West Cork, rural Ireland where I am managed by a small white terrier called Parsnip and am working on a new book and also a new project for Gateway Women which is about what it takes to become a ‘Conscious Childless Elderwoman’.
What is Gateway Women?
- Gateway Women started as a blog in 2011 because nobody would let me speak about my childlessness. I would just get shut down with shaming ‘bingos’ such as ‘Children aren’t all they’re cracked up to be’ or ‘But you’re so lucky, you get to sleep in and travel!’, as if these were my life’s ambitions. I got my first piece of PR the day after my first blog published, gave my first public talk 6-weeks later and was interviewed for the Guardian for a piece which went viral in 2012 and is still being read and shared today.
- Now celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2021, Gateway Women is the best known and most trusted resource for involuntarily childless women across the English-speaking world, providing both paid and free support.
- We host free local (currently mostly online) social gatherings in the UK, Ireland, Europe, Israel, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, online/offline healing and educational workshops to support women with their experience of childless grief, a thriving private membership community including the world’s only groups for childless women of colour, childless women living with chronic illness/disability, childless Christians, for our Jewish members and our LGBTQIA+ members etc.
- I am a white, cis-gendered, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual, partnered, English-speaking, childless woman, which is what you will usually see if you look for support around childlessness or infertility. However, I would like to acknowledge that the childless community is as diverse as the rest of society and I will continue to do my part to lift up and centre all forms of childless experience.
- Gateway Women, as the name would suggest, focuses on the experience of childless women. However, many of us are or were in relationships with childless men and I have done my best over the decade to support and centre the work of those childless men in our community. You will find a listing of resources for childless men on the Gateway Women website under ‘Resources’. Two that I would highlight are the work by my colleague Dr. Robin Hadley, who has created a body of work around the experience of grieving childless older men, and that of Andy Harrod and Michael Hughes who have created a closed Facebook group for childless men called ‘The Clan of Brothers’. During this lecture I will mostly speak from my experience of supporting mostly heterosexual childless women, both partnered and single, but I hope this is still of use to the broader childless community.
AN INTRODUCTION TO INVOLUNTARY CHILDLESSNESS
Terminology: childless, childfree, CNBC, circumstance
Terminology can get confusing!
- Childless – generally means you did want to have children and it didn’t work out for you. This is also sometimes called ‘Childless not by Choice,’ sometimes #CNBC (It’s not one that I use as it’s also a trademark of an American broadcasting corporation). You’ll often hear ‘Childless by Circumstance’ too.
- Childfree – is generally taken to mean that you are childfree by choice, that you have chosen not to become a parent. However, some childless people choose this term as it’s a ‘happier’ sounding word (no “less” in it) but it is broadly taken to mean childfree by choice within the childfree community.
- There are also awful medical words like nullipara (a medical term for a woman who has never given birth), ‘barren’ or insulting slang for infertile men such as ‘jaffas’ (which means ‘no seeds’).
- Other words that people have created such as my own ‘NoMo’, an abbreviation for ‘not mother’, I thought it sounded like a groovy downtown district in New York, and Karen Malone Wright co-incidentally at much the same time created the word ‘NotMom’ in the US
These words, some of them will make their way into the vocabulary, ‘Nomo’ is used a lot in Spain, and it is gaining more traction.
Data on the prevalence of voluntary/involuntary childlessness in the UK
- On average 1 in 5 women in the developed world is reaching midlife without children.
- This varies from 1 in 3 in Germany and Japan, to 1 in 4 in Ireland, Italy and Spain, to 1 in 5 currently in the UK.
- This is double what it was for our mother’s generation and early data suggests that we will see further increases in both voluntary and involuntary childlessness in the UK as the Millennial generation enters middle age over the next decade.
- This means that in your workplace, amongst your extended family or group of friends it is highly likely that you will know someone who is involuntarily childless and I have never met anyone who didn’t know someone impacted by this issue, but they may not be talking about it and I’ll come back to that later.
- There is a common belief that women who are childless either didn’t want kids or couldn’t have them, a very simple binary, when in fact only 10% are childfree by choice, 10% are childless due to infertility and 80% of childless women are childless by circumstance (Prof. Renske Keizer – referenced in my book).
- Of those 80% childless by ‘circumstance’ – those circumstances vary widely. I wrote a blog called ‘50 Ways Not to be a Mother’ on my website in 2012 which has been one of the most commented on, and which has made it into all 3 editions of my book, updated each time – and I could make that list longer. (It’s part of Chapter 1 of my book, free chapter download on my website.)
- Amongst the members of the Gateway community (around 800 women from around the world), I’m seeing a big increase in women who are childless due to ‘social infertility’ compared to a decade ago, and this means not having a willing or suitable partner during your potentially fertile years. Also a rise in childlessness due to chronic illness and being childless by relationship – because your partner already has children and doesn’t want more or doesn’t want children at all (a childfree partner).
- Most of the available data globally is about childless women, not men. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics doesn’t keep data on childless men, nor ask men about their parenting status in the census. This is something that my colleague Robin Hadley is working on. However, an academic meta-analysis would suggest that the numbers of childless men in the UK are as high, if not slightly higher, than childless women.
Why is childlessness so hidden in society?
If you consider that those who identify as LGBT has been stable at around 10% of the population for some time now (although this may change in future years with increasing gender fluidity amongst younger people). And no self-respecting HR department would neglect to include them in their diversity and inclusion ‘agenda’. Yet childless people could represent as much as 20-30% of the population and workforce but are consistently overlooked and othered in the workplace.
As I said in my 2017 TEDx talk “Women without children are the biggest diversity issue HR hasn’t heard of.”
So why, when the numbers are so high, are childless people so ‘absent’ in the minds of others – including politicians, policy-makers and organisational planners?
The reason is pronatalism – the ideology that teaches us that people who have children, parents, are more important than those that don’t and that being a parent is the only way to be a ‘proper’ adult. You only have to consider the cultural weight of the statement ‘As a mother’ in front of an opinion to see this in action. Who would preface a statement with ‘As a childless woman…’?
Pronatalism also contributes to the culturally acceptable diminishment of the experiences and contributions of childless individuals. Politicians bang on about ‘hard-working families’ rather than ‘hard-working people’ and as childless adults age and may need additional support, their needs are routinely neglected and seen as a burden on society, despite a lifetime of contributing to the civic structure that other people’s children depend upon.
I believe that pronatalism, and the fear of the childless woman, has deep roots in what Jung termed the ‘collective unconscious’
We can see this from fairy tales in which the deviant woman is always childless and a threat to the young fertile woman such as Snow White’s Evil Stepmother, the bad fairy who curses Sleeping Beauty, the cannibalistic childless witch of Hansel & Gretel and of course, our own modern deviant, the glamorous and psychopathic Cruella de Vil who is placed in direct opposition to the loving young couple and their family in 101 Dalmatians.
Human beings evolved as a tribal species. If we look back into human history, our strength as a species is not that we are the fastest or the strongest, or that we have the biggest claws – but that we have the capacity to collaborate and cooperate with each other. We are a tribal species, and a tribe can only exist and continue if children are born.
I believe that the infertile woman, the childless woman was feared in case her childlessness was ‘catching’. She would be pushed to the far edge of tribal society and often became the healer (later called a ‘witch’) because she had the time to invest in becoming an expert in such techniques. She was thus both feared and revered.
Indeed, in some cultures, childless women are still shunned and outcast. In Indian village culture, a childless wife is often an object of scorn and abuse and may become a form of household slave in her mother-in-law’s home or risk being thrown onto the streets (even though the infertility issue may not lie with her….). And Ghana has 4 notorious ‘Witch Camps’ where childless women, denounced by their neighbours as ‘witches’ may be sent to live out their days. Lorna Gibb’s book ‘Childless Voices’ features extraordinary interviews and reportage on this with childless women from around the world.
In Western culture, childless women are subject to a form of ideological othering called ‘Symbolic annihilation’ which is a way of making their appearance in the culture problematic or non-existent. The term comes from the work of Professor Gaye Tuchman and it’s a systemic way of distorting and under-representing minority groups in the culture. We see it in the way that childless women are seen and represented using derogatory stereotypes such as the Crazy Cat Lady, Career Woman, Spinster, Witch.
These stereotypes are everywhere – Professor Cristina Archetti at the University of Oslo researched 50 films featuring a childless character from the US, Italy and Norway during the period 1949-2017. The results of the research disturbed her as it was even worse than she had anticipated. In these films, the childless characters either die (often by suicide or because they are murdered for being psychotic) and only achieve some measure of normality by acquiring a baby by miraculous means, including finding them on doorsteps. If the childless woman does manage to get on with her life, it’s because she’s a superhero – more ordinary childless women are shown as ‘weird, cold, neurotic and hysterical at best, out to destroy other people’s lives at worst’ and lead ‘disordered lives’ in ‘empty soulless flats’ because they are ‘not real adults’. Only childless men are shown as being able to have reasonably normal lives.” (Quoted in Chapter 5 of my book, ‘Liberating Yourself from the Opinions of Others’)
Some examples that come easily to mind might include the unhinged alcoholic childless woman in ‘Girl on a Train’, the murdering nanny in ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle’ and any number of ‘odd’ female TV detectives from the frumpy spinster ‘Miss Marple’ through to the cold calculating ‘Jane Tennison’ of ‘Prime Suspect’.
THE DISENFRANCHISED ‘LIVING LOSS’ OF CHILDLESSNESS
Reading: Grief is Good
I’d like to start this section with a reading from Chapter 4 of my book – ‘Grief is Good’. I’ve been asked to read this many times, at rituals, gatherings and ceremonies around childlessness.
“In Western culture, we’ve become fairly hopeless at coping with grief, with loss. We fail to recognize its power, its meaning and its healing, and run from it as if it were death itself. Yet grief is the emotional and psychological process that enables us to deal with loss. Avoiding it makes us emotionally stuck, unable to cope with life, unable to move forward.
Becoming aware of the possibility that we may not have children, that we may not have the family of our dreams, is a heartbreaking loss. Unlike many of the other losses we may have experienced, the end of fertility or the possibility of bearing a biological child is an irrevocable and definite loss. It’s a kind of psychological death and it’s profound. Facing up to it changes us forever.
What we, and others, often fail to realize is the depth and reach of our loss: that not only will we never have children, but we will never create our own family. We’ll never get a chance to heal the wounds of our own childhood by doing things differently with our children. We’ll never watch them grow up, never hold their hot little hands in our own, never throw children’s birthday parties, never take that ‘first day at school’ photo, never teach them to ride a bike. We’ll never see them graduate, never see them possibly get married and have their own children. We’ll never be grandmothers and never give the gift of grandchildren to our parents. We’ll never be the mother of our partner’s children and hold that precious place in their heart. We’ll never stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our siblings and watch our children play together. We’ll never be part of the community of mothers, never be considered a ‘real’ woman in a society that equates motherhood with womanhood. We’ll never be able to hope that someone will be there to support us with the practical and emotional challenges of growing old, let alone someone to leave our treasured belongings to, visit our graves, or take our lifetime’s learnings into the next generation.
If you take the time to think about it all in one go, which is more than most of us are ever likely to do because of the breathtaking amount of pain involved, it’s a testament to our strength that we’re still standing at all.
And yet, because the loss of our future children is an invisible loss, we often fail to recognize ourselves that what we are experiencing is grief, and others don’t seem to have a clue what depth of pain and distress we are in. Some women are in such pain that they find themselves having suicidal fantasies. I did. It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want to live the rest of my life with this level of hurt.
If we miscarry, lose a baby or infant, fail to conceive or never have the opportunity to try for one, our loss can remain invisible to others. It’s known as ‘disenfranchised grief’ because it’s a grief that our society does not recognize and which consequently many of us feel shamed for experiencing if we allow ourselves to experience it at all. And because our loss isn’t recognised and reflected back to us with kindness and empathy we often give up seeking understanding from others and may instead learn to block out our pain with all kinds of self-medication, including drinking too much, overeating, overworking or becoming a sort of recluse. In doing so, we may remain stuck in a quagmire of unprocessed grief for years.”
“If we had lost a living family by some tragic evet, we would never expect ourselves to ‘get over it’. Yet we, and others, expect those of us who are childless to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, count our blessings and get on with things. No wonder so many of us are struggling. The treatment we currently receive is not just neglectful, it’s downright cruel. And sadly, knowing no better, many of us treat ourselves in exactly the same way.
I’ve come to understand grief as a form of love because it’s created by love and it’s a loving energy that heals us so that we can love life again. I like to imagine the moon, with its bright face towards us reflecting the sun, as ‘love’ and the dark side of the moon, in shadow, representing ‘grief’. We need to go though the whole cycle in order for the sun to come out in our lives again. There’s no other way round. We either stay in the dark or go through the dark and back out into the light again…
Grief heals us, but we cannot do it alone. We cannot ‘wait it out’. Time does not heal; grieving heals. But it cannot heal until it is witnessed and held jointly, with great tenderness, in the heart and soul of another. Just like love.
Just as one of the most painful romantic experiences is ‘unrequited love’, I think that disenfranchised grief is a form of ‘unrequited grief’ – a grief that is not allowed to be expressed, not allowed to be in a relationship. But grief cannot move into its active state, ‘grieving’, without a relationship because grief is a dialogue, not a monologue. And until we find a place to have that dialogue, either face to face, online or with a skilled therapist, it stays wedged in our hearts like a splinter. And it festers as it waits, infecting our life and our soul with sadness. It is vital that as childless women we give ourselves permission to grieve our losses and, in doing so, allow the grieving process to heal our hearts. Without grieving, we’re stuck fast. And without empathetic company with whom to do our grief work, we can stay stuck for a very long time indeed. It’s not as gloomy as it sounds because there’s more to grief than sadness, and there’s often laughter mixed in with the tears; and those tears are healing ones. After all, not every culture is as nervous about grief as we are; in the Mayan tradition, grief is considered the highest form of praise, and crying as a form of prayer.”
I still get very moved reading that. We rarely think about all our losses in one go like that.
What is disenfranchised grief?
In the reading from my book I mention ‘disenfranchised grief’. This is a form of grief that was identified by Kenneth Doka in the early 1980s and named by him in a 1985 paper. He defines it as ‘a grief which is not recognized or acknowledged by others’ and, ‘although the individual grieves, others do not acknowledge that the individual has a right to grieve. Such persons are not offered the ‘rights’ or the ‘grieving role’ such as a claim to social sympathy and support, or such compensations as time off from work or diminishment of social responsibilities’. (Darcy: 26)
But there is a problem with the term ‘disenfranchised grief’. Only the other day I was discussing it with a knowledgeable person and they said to me, ‘What does disenfranchised mean?’ Having to explain the term before you can even get others to recognise the nature of your loss is unfortunate and I find myself using Darcy L. Harris’ term ‘living loss’ or ‘non-death grief’ more often these days.
As Doka mentions, the modern scientific understanding of grief perhaps starts with Freud’s 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia”. However, as Doka points out, Freud’s essay isn’t about bereavement – it’s about a bride being abandoned at the altar – he wrote about living loss, about grieving for something you never had – something that would remain with you across the life-course and have a profound impact on your life. Freud’s first essay on grief was actually about ‘disenfranchised grief’.
Disenfranchised grief is socially unacceptable and is not allowed to be talked about or experienced and the childless are often shamed for experiencing it, as if they were just ‘feeling sorry for themselves’ – as if it were an embarrassing character flaw.
Yet grief exists in a social context – it is not a purely private emotion and it is shaped and organised by the social context, the social rules around it, and as sociologist Neil Thompson explores, this can present particular problems with disenfranchised grief (which is, after all, a set of ‘social rules’ about what grief is acceptable and what is not), in that without the acceptable social signifier of a ‘bereavement’ many people do not know that they are grieving and thus do not seek the support they need, or may not receive it if they do.
Doka’s first understanding of what he later termed ‘disenfranchised grief’ came from working with those grieving the death of an ex-spouse, for which they got no understanding from those around them and their workplace did not grant them bereavement leave to attend the funeral.
There are many other forms of disenfranchised grief such as grief over a lost friendship, abortion grief, miscarriage grief, secondary infertility grief and the relinquishing of a child for adoption, to name just a few.
A form of disenfranchised grief which is very common amongst childless women that I’ve worked with is grieving the loss of a current or future partner in their lives. If they mention this sadness to others they are likely to be ‘bingoed’ with empathic failures such as, ‘Don’t worry, I know you’re going to meet someone!’ rather than allowing them to explore the complex sadness and powerlessness involved.
This is also a form of what Pauline Boss termed ‘ambiguous loss’ where a person is psychologically present but physically absent, such as in armed-forces personnel ‘missing in action’, and I explore this in Chapter 4 of my book (usually referred to as ‘the grief chapter’) in the section, ‘Grieving Alone: Solo Women’s Grief’.
Our society is fixated on the bereavement of a family member being the only ‘legitimate’ form of grief that is socially sanctioned.
In a 2020 paper, Kenneth Doka defines ‘disenfranchised grief’ as arising from five main situations.
I’ll go through each of these and how they apply to involuntary childlessness
 The relationship is not recognized
If you are not ‘kin’ to the bereaved person, there can be no understanding of why you ‘should’ be grieving. This can include the death of neighbours, friends, colleagues, ex-partners, counsellors, caregivers etc. For example during the Covid19 pandemic, although there has been much mention in British news reports of the ‘emotional strain’ that care-home workers have been experiencing with the death of so many of their residents during such a short period, this is not being named as ‘grief’ – they are not ‘kin’ to the deceased and thus their bond is not recognized.
So therefore you can imagine that there is little recognition that it is possible, healthy and necessary to grieve those children that are not in our life and may not ever even have been conceived.
But something that is perhaps little known outside the childless community is that not only do we grieve our children but that we continue to have a relationship with them across the life course.
We have names for them and painfully, sometimes see what their faces might have been like when siblings or ex-partners have children. My children would be young adults now – I don’t have to work out how old, I know how old they would be as they have aged with me.
This would seem to suggest that the ‘continuing bonds’ theory of grief as an extension of Bowlby’s attachment theory exists for those mourning childlessness too.
Grief is a form of love, attachment is a form of love. We loved those children not in our life and thus we don’t grieve a purely ‘abstract’ idea of children (which is why I imagine those who do not share this experience may think we have ‘nothing’ to grieve) but we grieve something that is tangible to us, if only us.
There was a time, about a decade ago, when a certain turn of the head in a child of about eight seen through the corner of my eye on the street, the heavy dark fringe of a child in a film that would piece my heart like a skewer – because that’s the age that the children-of-my-heart were at the time.
But these days, interactions and representations of primary-school-age children are no longer problematic for me because they do not represent my loss, but my heart can sometimes still be touched with grief when I see the interactions between parents and their young adult children. They are the age that my children would be now, and I miss them.
 Another area of ‘disenfranchised grief’ that Doka has identified is one where the loss is not acknowledged
Although it is not culturally acceptable to frame it in this way, life can be seen as a continual process of loss from birth to death. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun who has written many extremely accessible books about the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and tolerance of suffering says that ‘Life is a continual process of having the rug pulled from under your feet.’
Doka writes that ‘unacknowledged losses’ is perhaps one of the areas of ‘disenfranchised grief’ that is gaining most ground in research and understanding, with work having been done around the loss experienced when someone undergoes a ‘significant personal transformation’ (as in the transformation of becoming childless instead of becoming a parent) as well as during ‘anticipatory mourning’, something that women and couples who have suffered miscarriages and IVF losses are all too familiar with.
Many childless women also experience ‘anticipatory loss’ when a close friend or family member announces a pregnancy knowing all too well that the relationship will probably never be the same and it can feel as if we have ‘lost’ yet another friend to the land called parenthood where we will never be invited, never fully speak the language, never fully be welcome or understood.
Unacknowledged loss can also occur around embryo loss, miscarriage, early term loss, stillbirth and abortion loss, around the loss of a baby during a surrogate pregnancy, around being turned-down for adoption or the breakdown of an adoption and also the remaining grief of biological childlessness after an adoption placement, the loss of contact with step-children (or step-grand-children) when a relationship ends and many other thwarted paths to parenthood.
The loss of an assumptive worldview can be a massive loss to those grieving childlessness – and not only that, but we are reminded of it on a daily basis as we watch others live a life of parenting and grandparenting. Misunderstood by those closest to us, not only do we have to privately come to terms with the loss of our longed-for children, but also our loss of status within our family and community, the growing inequalities in the workplace and society where benefits ‘naturally’ accrue to those with children, often at the invisible expense of those without, as well as real and often unresolvable fears around who will be there for us when we are old, the loss of easy intergenerational contact and much, much more. Whilst the intense grief of coming to terms with childlessness may pass, with support, the lifelong losses of it necessarily remain. We are forever walking a path we did not choose whilst watching our friends and family live the life we longed for. And if we bring it up, or point it out, we are often accused of being ‘over-sensitive’, ‘bitter’ or ‘resentful’.
Whatever your belief system, the grief of involuntary childlessness will shake that up and it will become absolutely necessary to find and make meaning in life in new ways. This is a huge existential and practical challenge and yet one that is unrecognized by others, who think that childless adults can simply continue ‘as before’, whilst they themselves often overshare on social media about how ‘they never knew what love was’ until they had their children or ‘that being a mother is the most meaningful thing I have ever done in my life’ or that ‘having grandchildren is pure joy’.
Sadly, the nature of disenfranchised grief and the dominance of the pronatalist narrative means that the grief of involuntary childlessness is often also missed in the therapy and consulting room. I did not discover that the devastating, life-altering distress I was in was ‘grief’ until I had already been grieving for a few years. I was in the second year of my training to become an integrative psychotherapist and we were doing a weekend training course on bereavement.
In the training, we were introduced to Kubler-Ross’s ‘5 Stages of Grief’ model and it resonated with me on a very deep level. That night, I went home and mapped out the five stages and compared them to my own experience of childlessness and realised, for the first time, that I was grieving. This was a huge relief to me for two reasons: firstly, it meant I wasn’t going crazy, as the internal cognitive reality of grief can be deeply disturbing and, secondly, because although I didn’t yet know how, I knew that grief was a ‘process’ and that therefore somehow, one day, I would come out the other end of this – I wasn’t going to feel like this forever.
Considering that I’d had years of therapy before starting my psychotherapy training, and during, and had seen several therapists and a psychiatrist about my mental health during this time (as well as Dr. Google) nobody had named the word ‘grief’ to me. For many childless women, my book and my work is the first time that they too learn that they are grieving and it comes as both a shock and a huge relief to them too to have a name for what they are experiencing and to help them to seek appropriate support.
Recently, I created a video training course for COSRT (the UK College of Sexual and Relationship therapists) on ‘The Impact of Involuntary Childlessness on Sexual Intimacy’ and, as far as we are aware, this is the first therapeutic CPD training around anything to do with permanent involuntary childlessness. It is a grief and experience which has been disenfranchised within professional communities, denying professionals the knowledge they need to better support their clients.
 A third category of ‘disenfranchised grief’ identified by Doka is one where ‘The Griever is Excluded’
Although Doka defines this aspect of disenfranchised grief as one that occurs on occasions where the individual is defined as being not ‘socially capable’ of grief, such as those with dementia, intellectual disabilities and very young children and who therefore receive very little social recognition for their loss – I would extend this definition to include those childless individuals who are perceived as being ‘childless by choice’ when that choice has been what I would call ‘a rock and a hard place choice’ rather than a free one.
Such situations include those who choose not to have children due to chronic physical illnesses, mental illnesses, genetic inheritances or other disadvantageous systemic factors including finances and housing issues. In my experience of women who have made this tough choice, it has involved a deeply maternal and heartbreaking assessment of the potential impact of their life-circumstances on the life of their future children, and they have courageously chosen to bear the burden of their longing and grief over non-parenthood rather than pass the potential difficulties onto their future children. Yet should they try to discuss their heartbreak with others, they may be told glibly by others that as this was their ‘choice’ they ‘should’ be happy with it.
LGBTQIA+ women and couples’ grief over childlessness is doubly disenfranchised, with the homophobic idea of them as ‘not natural’ giving rise to the idea that they wouldn’t have ‘wanted’ to have children. Yet as quoted in Chapter 4 of my book in the section ‘Grieving as a Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual Woman’, ‘30-50% of lesbian women of childbearing age wish to become parents’ and the pain of childlessness within the lesbian community can be equally exclusionary.
Men too are often excluded from the study, discussion and support around childless grief, although research by UK academic Dr Robin Hadley, one of the world’s leading researchers into male childlessness, has shown that men are just as ‘broody’ as women and grieve their childlessness deeply. Much of the emotionally affective experience of men is disenfranchised in our culture, and this includes grief. This can also create significant communication and experiential difficulties for heterosexual couples during the grief process, as I discuss in Chapter 4 of my book.
This ‘exclusion from grieving’ also extends to those who freely define themselves as ‘childfree by choice’ who are perceived (particularly if female) to be, as Meghan Daum’s brilliant edited collection of essays is called: ‘Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed’. The path to choosing a childfree life is rarely simple and it is always deeply considered, regularly reflected upon and for some may include grief and loss too.
There are many other areas of childless exclusion from grieving deserving of attention, worthy of a talk all on its own, but please forgive me as this is just a brief overview…
 A fourth category of ‘disenfranchised grief’ defined by Doka are ‘the Circumstances of the Death/Loss’
In his 1989 work, Doka suggested that certain circumstances around a death might disenfranchise grief, such as death by suicide or AIDS. This theory was extended by Rando (1993) to include losses that might provoke anxiety or embarrassment and I believe this can also be the case with childlessness.
Some time ago, a very dear friend of mine lost one of her young adult sons, to whom I was very close, to suicide. At her wedding some years later I gave a speech in which I acknowledged her dead son and ‘the presence of his absence’ at the wedding, and how happy he would have been for her. I felt the whole room breathe out a sigh of relief that I had somehow named the unnamable, and her surviving son, who had not been planning to say anything, stood up and spoke very movingly about his own grief for his brother. After both of us had spoken, the whole atmosphere of the wedding changed to one of celebrating life rather than not talking about death. And yet, as non-kin to the dead young man, no one apart from his mother understood that I too grieved him too, and with an extra layer of yearning to me as he was one of the few young people in my life that I imagined I would maintain a relationship with, one of my sources of intergenerational contact.
Whilst it is, unfortunately, becoming increasingly common for pregnant women to share sonograms of their growing fetuses with everyone on their company intranet or WhatApp list (we call it being ‘scanbushed’ in the childless community!), there is a real queasiness around what the awful reality of the term ‘miscarriage’ might actually involve, and the idea that you might want to see those ‘byproducts of conception’ (as they are coldly termed by the medical profession) and both name and memorialize this longed-for life can be seen as ‘creepy’ and ‘maudlin’ rather than a natural and healthy ritual to help process heartbreaking loss.
Our culture is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of childlessness as, deep down, I believe it brings up deep tribal fears of annihilation. There is a narrative of what is becoming known as ‘toxic positivity’ where women who express their grief over their childlessness may well be given a shopping list full of ‘bingos’ – I explore these in my TEDx talk – about how they could ‘fix’ their situation such as, ‘Why don’t you have one on your own?’ or ‘Why didn’t you just adopt if you wanted it so badly?’ without any recognition of the logistical, emotional or financial implications involved. And as you get older, the bingos can still keep coming with even grandchildren-loss being ‘fixed’ with suggestions such as, “Oh I read this article where you can be matched with a young person looking for a grandparent-figure.”
 The fifth and final category of ‘disenfranchised grief’ that Doka identifies is ‘The Way an Individual Grieves’
Trying to find a way to grieve childlessness in a socially acceptable way is almost impossible outside the childless community. It has been my own experience, and the experience of many women I have worked with over the years, that there may be other involuntarily childless people in our lives, but they seem unwilling to discuss their childlessness or their pain around it. It’s simply a no-go area and it would seem that they have disenfranchised their own grief to such an extent that they may not accept that you (and they) have the ‘right’ to grieve. Such natural potential ‘allies’ may even shame you for ‘wallowing’ in your grief and encourage you to ‘stop going on about it’ or even that there’s something ‘wrong with you’ and that you’ve become ‘obsessed by your grief’.
Here is an example of grief shaming shared by a grieving childless woman on her website ‘Grief is the Word’:
“Some time ago, a friend took my breath away with the following words, “I’m single and childless too, so I’m in exactly the same position as you are. I don’t feel the need to talk about grief so why on earth do you need to go on about it so much? She really caught me off guard – until that moment I had thought we had the sort of friendship where I could tell her anything that was going on with me and that she would care enough to listen to me. So, I was in a very open and vulnerable place in that moment. I had just shared something deeply personal about my experience of childless grief and I had assumed that she would listen without judgement. Her words hit me so deeply that I couldn’t speak, and simply had to end the conversation. We have never referred to that conversation again; I have never told her how wounded I was by her words. But the result was that I decided, for my own wellbeing, to put up a boundary. I have never spoken to her about my grief again; although she is still a good friend it no longer feels safe to share this part of my life experience with her. Another loss.”
I see ‘disenfranchised grief’ as unrequited grief – grief that is not allowed to be in relationship and, if you accept that it is a social emotion that needs a social connection in order to be integrated, it can become, what Doka terms a ‘complicating factor’ leading to long term ‘Chronic sorrow’ or ‘Complicated grief’. However, I have worked with women in their sixties and seventies who have had no previous safe space for their childless grief to experience significant relief in finding a community outlet for their losses. Although of course, that may well be accompanied by a new grief to be metabolised – that of having been ‘living my life with the pause button on’ for decades. A grief for lost years, lost decades.
With couples grieving childlessness together, this can present difficulties too, with one partner ‘holding it together’ (often, but not always, the man in a heterosexual relationship) whist their partner more stereotypically mourns. Something I’ve seen many times is that if a woman has been getting support from others in the Gateway Women online community or by attending a Gateway Women workshops, courses or social gatherings, or perhaps by working through my book – as she starts to feel a little bit more integrated and ready perhaps to re-engage with the world, it can be at exactly this point that her partner may begin to reveal what lies behind the ‘stiff upper lip’ and this can provoke anger and confusion, “Where was your pain when I needed to know that you were feeling this too? I’ve felt so alone and abandoned in my grief.”
In my work creating and leading rituals for grieving childless women, I’ve noticed an incredible reluctance by many women to allow themselves the permission to take part and almost to take their own grief seriously. The internalised disenfranchisement of childless grief can have a profoundly limiting effect on the ability of childless women to seek and accept the support of others and to participate in community-led mourning rituals that can be profoundly comforting.
CONCLUSION & HOPES FOR THE FUTURE
It is difficult to conclude a talk like this as there is so much more that I could share with you, and so much more work that needs to be done. However, I thought I would conclude with some of my personal thoughts on why grief is so important, and so misunderstood.
My own experience of childless grief was a terrifying dark night of the soul that I did not know if I would survive. It felt like everything I believed about myself and about the world was being ripped away from me, leaving my soul stripped bare of protection in a world devoid of understanding, empathy or kindness. However, in time, as I integrated the enormous personal loss of never becoming a mother alongside my loss of social status as a non-parent, I began to realize that my grief had also pulled back the curtain and revealed something to me.
I discovered that grief, far from being a punishment for having got things wrong was actually the dark engine of life.
Think of the Greek Goddess Persephone, abducted from the earth and forced into marriage with Lord Hades himself for half of each year as the price of her release; or the Sumerian Goddess Inanna descending to the underworld to challenge the might of her elder sister, the Queen of the Night, Erishkigal. Both went into the depths and came back powerfully changed and both paid a life-altering price for it. Sometimes it turns out that you have to go to hell and back again to get a little perspective on things.
Grief is sorely misunderstood in our culture.
We think that grief is something that ‘happens’ to people that have lost a loved one and that, in time, it passes and then everything’s okay again. We see grief as an ‘event’ but it’s not – it’s a physiological, psychological and spiritual process that takes us deep into our personal underworld where we come face to face with our own darkness and are transformed by it. But this is not some kind of pretty motivational-quote kind of transformation but rather the blood-curdling dark night of the soul that the myths of Persephone and Inanna speak to.
Grief and love are at the core of what it means to be human and they are each as vital as each other. Love transforms us in ways that we can never undo, and never predict; grief does the same.
It heals our wounds by taking us deep into the underbelly of our longings, to the very core of who we are and then pulls from that furnace the essence of our being to refresh our souls and gird our loins ready to rejoin life again. We are never the same again once we’ve danced in the dark with grief, something that it takes time for our life, and those around us, to adjust to.
I understand that my grief is not the bad fairy at the christening but a wise ancestral teacher who arrives when I have to face change – whether I’ve chosen that change or not.
The bookshelves are full of books on ‘change’ but they fail to recognize that all change, even good, hoped-for change involves loss – you have to let go of something to make space for the ‘new thing’. And that the emotion that enables us to deal with loss is grief. Learning how to ‘be’ with grief, knowing that it is not an ‘event’ but a process that we will encounter in many different forms across the life course gives us the tools and the resilience to cope with change. And life is a continuous process of change, a continuous process, as Pema Chodron said, of having the rug pulled from under our feet.
If the disenfranchised grief of childlessness were recognised by the mainstream, my hope is that the following things would begin to happen on a societal level:
- The systemic ‘othering’ of non-parents and how it is legitimized by the ‘ism’ of pronatalism, along with the disenfranchised grief of involuntary childlessness, would be added to the curriculum of all counselling and psychotherapy trainings. This would help to reduce the unconscious pronatalism that exists in the therapy room and which serves neither clients nor society.
- Within the workplace, non-parenthood (whether childless or childfree) would be treated as a ‘protected characteristic’ under employment law and the unconscious bias that conflates ‘female-friendly policies’ with ‘family-friendly policies would be addressed, as would the unfair distribution of workloads, maternity cover and holiday and leave policies. Better recognition and support of non-parents in such organisations (who may well be some of the most experienced team members) will lead to much better staff retention of key talent. The somatized symptoms of untreated grief would lessen, leading to a happier workforce, less time off-sick and less absenteeism. Such organisations would become recognized as innovative ones and as great places to work, as well as seeing the impact on their bottom line.
- Politicians would stop using parenting metaphors as if they represent some kind of universal experience. They would stop banging on about ‘hard-working families’ and instead focus on ‘hard-working people’. They would potentially gain millions of new voters as citizens without children would finally find a political party that represents them too. This is not about caring less for the needs of families, it is about caring for the needs of all citizens.
- Policymakers would routinely consider how social care policy serves the needs of the millions of adults (and growing) who are ageing without children, and make sure that their needs, as well as the needs of old people with family, are provided for. This in turn will make the experience of ageing better for all. And this in turn will lead to a new respect for ‘childless elders’ and a recognition that those of us who are not biologically invested in the next generation have the capacity for a broader and longer view of the future through an altruistic concern not for ‘our descendants’ but for all the children of the future. These are my hopes.
Many of the references and sources for this lecture are drawn from Jody Day’s 2020 book, ‘Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find, Hope and a Fulfilling Future without Children’. 2nd Ed. London: Bluebird/Pan Macmillan. Free download of Introduction and Chapter 1 available at www.gateway-women.com/book
Archetti, C. (2020). Childlessness in the Age of Communication: Deconstructing Silence. UK: Routledge, including her film analysis. See also (2019) ‘No Life Without family: Film representations of Involuntary Childlessness, Silence and Exclusion’. International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 15(2):175-196, June 2019. bit.ly/2QAi7Np
Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. USA, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. www.ambiguousloss.com
Carroll, H. (2012). ‘I may not be a mother but I am still a person’. Interview with Jody Day. The Guardian, Saturday 25 February, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/25/child-free-women-jody-day
Chodron, P. (1997). When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. US: Shambhala Publications Inc.
Daum, M. (2015). Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to have Kids. Edited and with an Introduction by Meghan Daum. USA, New York: Picador (Macmillan).32 Green, R, J. (1996) ‘How Many Witches’. bit.ly/357A0sf33
Day, J. (2017) TEDx talk. ‘The Lost Tribe of Childless Women’. bit.ly/jodytedtalk
Day, J. (2017). ‘Childlessness after miscarriage: the untold story. A guest blog for Tommy’s charity’. bit.ly/gw-tommys
Day, J. (2019). ‘I don’t regret my abortion even though I’ve never become a mother’. Sunday Telegraph ‘Stella’ Magazine, 12 January 2019. www.bit.ly/gw-stella
Day, J. (2020). Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children. 2nd edition. London: Bluebird/PanMacmillan. Free chapter 1 download at www.gateway-women.com/book
Day, J. (2021a). ‘Letting Go of Certainty’. 11 January 2021. Sensitive Evolution [website]. https://sensitiveevolution.com/letting-go-of-certainty
Day, J. (2021b) ‘The Impact of Involuntary Childlessness on Sexual Intimacy’. A CPD video training course for COSRT (The College of Sexual and Relationship therapists). www.cosrt.org.uk
Doka, K. J. (1985). ‘Disenfranchised Grief’. Paper presented to a Symposium on Death Education of the Foundation of Thanatology, New York.
Doka, K. J. (Ed). (1989). Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. Lexington, MA: Lexington Press.
Doka, K. J. (2020). ‘Disenfranchised Grief and Non-Death Losses’ in Darcy L. Harris (Ed) (2020) Non-Death Loss and Grief: Context and Clinical Implications. New York and London: Routledge. bit.ly/gw-darcy
Freud, S. (1917). ‘Mourning and melancholia’. In J. Stacey (Ed. & Trans.). The Standard Edition of the Complete General Worlds of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14, 1957). London: Hogarth.
Gibb, L. (2019) Childless Voices: Stories of Longing, Loss, Resistance and Choice. UK: Granta Books
Grief is the Word [website/personal blog]. Alison: ‘On Grief Shaming’ 14 February 2021. https://griefistheword.wordpress.com/2021/02/14/on-grief-shaming/
Hadley, R. A. (2020). ‘Male broodiness: Does the desire for fatherhood affect men?’ Psychreg Journal of Psychology 4(3): 67-89. www.robinhadley.co.uk
Harris, D. L. (Ed) (2020). Non-Death Loss and Grief: Context and Clinical Implications. NY: Routledge. bit.ly/gw-darcy
Jackson, J. B. (2018). ‘The Ambiguous Loss of Singlehood: Conceptualizing and Treating Singlehood Ambiguous Loss Among Never-Married Adults.’ Contemporary Family Therapy (2018): Vol 40: 210-222. bit.ly/2rBV5Nx
Lynch, B. (2020). ‘As a Mother’. TV segment for MyPointTV bit.ly/gw-bibi
Rando, T. A. (1993). Treatment of Complicated Mourning. Champlain, IL: Research Press.
Thompson, N. (2020) ‘The Social Context of Loss and Grief’ n Darcy L. Harris (Ed) (2020) Non-Death Loss and Grief: Context and Clinical Implications. New York and London: Routledge. bit.ly/gw-darcy
Tuchman, G. (2000). ‘The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media’. In: Crothers, L., Lockhart C. (eds) Culture and Politics. NY: Palgrave Macmillan https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-62397-6_9
Whale, M. (2019). ‘10 Things You Need to Know about Involuntary Childlessness’. PESI UK. [online]. bit.ly/gw-10things