Geeta Pendse is a British journalist and TV presenter and her podcast features stories and topics relating to both childless and childfree women. You can listen to Jody’s episode 7 here or search ‘1 in 5 – Leading a Life Without Children’ wherever you get your podcasts. You can connect with Geeta on Twitter @geetapendse and Instagram @geetapendse. Do also check out episode 1 with Gateway Women facilitator, author and activist for childless women of colour, Yvonne John.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
Geeta: Hello, welcome to the 1 in 5 podcast, a space to explore all sides of leading a life without children. I’m Geeta Pendse and this show was born out of a desire to have more honest and open conversations. Each guest has their own reasons and thoughts around a life without kids, whether that’s by choice or by circumstance, and I really want to honour that and also celebrate these incredible women. Today’s guest is someone who is having a huge impact. Jody Day has been described as the Beyoncé of childlessness, with her TED Talk, ‘The Lost Tribe of Childless Women’ being watched almost 170,000 times. I think the Beyoncé reference is because of her fierce determination to challenge assumptions, and also the impact of Gateway Women, a global friendships support and advocacy network, which she founded. In this chat, we cover a lot of ground including the subject of social infertility which can carry a lot of stigma.
[Extract] Jody: I think it is massively on the rise. It is also the least discussed part of how to be childless when that wasn’t your choice, because there is a double layering of shame, from the patriarchy and from pronatalism, which is no one chose you to be the mother of their children. You’re kind of doubly rejected. It is so cruel. You’ve only got to look at the crazy cat lady thing. It’s not about cats. It’s about childless women. If there was a woman who lived in a house with loads of cats, but she had children, she’d have loads of ‘family pets’. It’s about being an oddball, an outcast, because you’re single and you’re childless.
Geeta: In this chat, we go deep exploring Jody’s own experience of infertility and how grief when processed with the right supports can be a transformative experience. Jody is a woman who is living a life full of passion and purpose. And our conversation is really open and frank. So let’s get started. Welcome to the 1 in 5 podcast Jody.
Jody: It’s lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.
Geeta: I’m so so happy to have you on the show because the work that you do with Gateway women has touched the lives of so many people and on the 1 in 5 podcast, so this is only season one, I’ve had three separate mentions of Gateway Women and your name in three different episodes. And we’ve only just begun! So I’m so happy to have you on the first season. It sounds very American, whenever I say season, I always think very American. But what I wanted to ask you initially really was, when you when you set up Gateway Women, did you have any sense of how much this community was needed?
Jody: I would love to say I had some kind of amazing crystal ball, but I absolutely didn’t. And also to those three people, the cheques are in the post! I set it up out of personal need. I set it up because I needed it. When I wrote that very first blog, I had no idea that what I was doing was so radical in its own way. I used my own name. I used my real photograph. I didn’t hide behind anything. I didn’t say I’m ashamed of my childlessness by sort of hiding, but also I just spoke from the heart about how I was feeling about my childlessness. And I got my first piece of PR the next day. And then women from all around the world were writing to me commenting on those early blogs saying, ‘How do you know the exact words that are in my head? I thought I was the only person with these thoughts.’
Jody: And that for me was my first experience of connection, of being heard, of not feeling that I was kind of crazy, or oversensitive, or that I should have got over it, finally I was hearing people going basically ‘me too.’ And having spent time in the 12 step movement in a group called Al-Anon, which is for friends and families of addicts and alcoholics, because my first marriage broke down because of my then husband’s addiction problems, I had had the experience of how powerful it is just to be in a room full of people in a confidential environment, who have a different version of the same problem. And hearing them talk about their stuff and you start to feel less alone and how healing the power of peer-to-peer healing. So I guess my background as a writer, and maybe my background also in the rooms in the 12 step movement, were really kind of there right at the beginning of Gateway Women and it did really resonate with a lot of people and 11 years on, still does.
Geeta: Yeah, and congratulations on reaching your 11th birthday! This podcast, it’s called the 1 in 5 podcast. And I know you’re very familiar with that statistic that one in five women in the UK, are likely not to have a biological child by the time they’re 45. This is very much a platform where I want to explore all sides of life without children and the stories of those who’ve chosen that life as well as those who are childless by circumstance. And that’s partly because of my own personal experience and the sense that I identify with both groups, you know at various points in my life and even today, I wouldn’t say I’m definitely one. I do identify more with being childfree, like that term I connect with, but I know for you, as you just said, you very much wanted to be a mother, and I know that your marriage ended and you got to your sort of late-30s and that was very much at the forefront, wasn’t it, of your mind?
Jody: It was very much – but I wasn’t always desperate to have children. I had no terminology for it when I was young. But certainly, when I was growing up, I grew up in a very unhappy home, with a very unhappy mum, who was also an un-mothered woman herself – so also for her being a mum was very difficult. And I thought having children sort of meant having my family, unconsciously. So as a young woman, I very much didn’t want to have children because I didn’t want the experience of family because unconsciously I thought that’s what it was.
Jody: And also I grew up in the 70s – I was born in the mid-60s so grew up – my childhood was the 70s, and it was drummed into us that children ‘ruin your life’. That you really don’t want to have children – and really this was from family, from schools from all the education system, this idea, what they were trying to do was they were trying to stop teenage pregnancy in its tracks. And they did. Unfortunately, they gave a whole generation of young women the idea that pregnancy was incredibly easy, and also that it would sort of stunt your life in some way. It’s quite extraordinary that – it was a very un-nuanced message to use modern parlance. And a lot of us of my age really didn’t understand about our fertility, really didn’t understand about fertility ageing. And our mothers and teachers who were women who didn’t have access to the opportunities that were opening up for my generation, they had no idea because if they’d had children, they had them younger, that they were also leading into a lot of unintended childlessness for this generation because of fertility and also finding the time to have a partner, in which to meet a partner even.
Jody: So I started out as childfree but I didn’t know the terminology. I actually got pregnant at 20, accidentally, in a very good, long-term relationship that, you know, he was absolutely thrilled, would have been happy to get married and have the baby. I was terrified, absolutely terrified. I had an abortion. I was terrified of being a mum, I was terrified of being a mother, you know, having the experience of being a mother as I’d been mothered. And also this idea, well, that’s the end of my story, then that’s the end of my life. I will never be able to do any of the things I dreamed of. Because the mantra was, ‘see the world and then settle down’, you know? So, that relationship ended about a year later, and I then met the man who became my husband. And when I met him, when we got serious, I said, ‘I don’t think I want to have children’.
Geeta: Wow, you did have a period where, it’s pretty shocking to hear isn’t it because you have become, in some ways, I know you’re referred to as like the Beyoncé of childlessness, but the fact that you did have periods of your life where actually you were very openly saying you don’t want kids.
Jody: Yes. And he was fine with it. And we got married, when I was 26. He was from a big family. He was one of six. I loved his parents very much. They’re both dead now, but I was very close to them and I’m still close to his whole family. And I began to realise that having a family didn’t mean having my childhood. It could be something different. And so I changed my mind. And I said, ‘I think I’d like to have children’, and he was like, ‘okay’ – you know, it was these enormous life-changing conversations, but they were actually very straightforward for us, which was unusual, perhaps. And we started trying and I was unable to conceive. I had an operation when I was 33, what’s called a laparoscopy where they send a camera down to have a look around. And there was absolutely nothing wrong. There was no damage from the abortion or my fallopian tubes or anything like that. We were both given a complete working bill of health, for our fertility and just told to sort of go off and ‘have lots of sex you lovely young people.’ All the consultant said was that mine was ‘the finest uterus I’ve seen all week’ – so now I’m gonna have that on my tombstone! Especially as now some days I feel like sort, after Jennifer Aniston, one of the world’s most well-known empty uteruses! It was a very fine one…
Jody: I got obsessed after that. We were trying to have a baby, and I used every alternative method I knew, and some really wacky ones as well. But I also look back on that time, think I was 33, I’d been trying to conceive for nearly four years. I have no knowledge really, of how or why fertility ages. You know, no one even mentioned to me that it might be worth investigating IVF or something at that time when I was young. I was so ignorant. And I forgive myself now. Because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know to ask those questions, because I didn’t know that the information I had was the wrong information.
Geeta: The thing is interesting as well to hear you speak because I’m in my late 30s. And if I’m honest, maybe it’s like the progression of the story of the pressures that women feel, because I feel that in my mid-30s, when that whole ticking clock agenda comes along. I found it incredibly disturbing and actually it brought me a lot of unhappiness being constantly told you need to get pregnant, you need to have a baby now, quit, go go go. And whilst I do, of course, understand biology, female biology, I also feel like sometimes that real kind of alarm bells that can that can go off in your head can also, I don’t know, stop you from living your life too…?
Jody: I kind of know that because I was one of those women for whom the alarm bells were going off – there’s almost 20 years between us – and that sort of 35 year ‘get on with it’ narrative really wasn’t around 20 years ago – and I thought IVF was miracle science that always worked. Unfortunately, that’s still the narrative that still comes out of the fertility industry, and that’s not its fault – it’s just that it’s the bit that the media picks up on. And celebrity pregnancies – it’s not their job to educate the public either, but they ended up doing so. And I think it would have been good if you know the fertility professionals or the gynecologist overseeing us mentioned it but I, I’m thinking what it would have been like, you know – social media didn’t exist then. You know, there was an awful lot of stuff that comes at younger women now that wasn’t coming at me. And I I fully take on board your point that yeah, I didn’t get enough information and people get too much now. And not necessarily helpful. And I think the underlying statement under that ‘you must have a baby now you’re 35’ is also what’s not being said there, which is kind of ‘or your life is bit of a failure. You’re going to regret it.’ It’s the messaging that is implicit in that statement. That’s the stuff that really keeps us awake. What’s my life going to be like if I don’t have a baby?
Geeta: And it’s so subtle, and it took me a few years to figure out what was going on because I’ve always been a very, you know, quite positive and I like to think an empowered woman in terms of choosing my life. I felt there was suddenly this idea of failure that was kind of hovering around me and I couldn’t quite work out why I was feeling that way. And I think you’re right it’s the sort of subtle messaging underneath it all.
Jody: Pronatalism is kind of in the water. It starts at a very early age. And you know, pronatalism is the ideology that says the only way to be a fully realized woman is to be a mother, that mothers are more important than women who are not mothers. And also, that men who are fathers are more important than men who are non-fathers. Men struggle with this too, very much. It’s more hidden. And also men grieve and the numbers are actually there are more childless men than there are childless women, or shall we say, non-fathers, because that includes childfree men as well. But even on the Census statement, there’s no question for men about how many children they have.
Geeta: I know and that’s so frustrating. I completely hear you on that Jody and I just think why? Why are we not talking about both men and women? It’s just too convenient. Isn’t it?
Jody: Yes, it’s also incredibly sexist towards men because it presumes that men might have children they don’t know about. It conforms to this sexist stereotype of men of just sort of spreading their seed everywhere. Now, that is always entirely possible. And it would be very unlikely if a woman didn’t know exactly how many children she’d had, but I still think it underpins and reinforces this idea that having children is a woman’s job, and that feeds through in so many ways and causes so many problems and holds back women in so many ways.
Jody: But just to kind of come back to my story. So I carried on trying to have children, wasn’t able to conceive, had something called unexplained infertility, and at the point when my then-husband and I was starting to think about doing IVF, I just realised that our marriage was in a terrible state. And I think it was actually the moment when he said, ‘Okay, I think we should go into IVF’, was the kind of the crystal ball moment for me because I just thought, ‘I can’t bring a child into this mess.’ It was crazy and addicted and messy and we were running a business together. And I’d grown up in chaos. I’d grown up around substance abuse. I just thought, ‘I don’t want this for my children.’ And that was a terrible realisation. Kind of meant the end of my marriage really. And not long after that, and not surprisingly, I had a nervous breakdown with the stress of infertility and also being the codependent partner in an addictive relationship where I was kind of holding everything together, and keeping an awful lot of secrets from clients from family members and just being a strong person who was holding together the shit show behind the scenes. Obviously when I stopped holding it together, then everyone got to see what was going on…
Jody: And I got divorced with really quite indecent haste. I was out of there so fast because baby mania was still driving me, because I thought I’ve still got time to get out there, find someone else and do IVF. So I was kind of 38 when my marriage broke down, 40 when I started dating again, I had no idea about IVF, I thought it always worked. So I had no idea that at 40 using my own eggs, I already had between a 1% and 5% chance of success. You know, I thought it always worked. That’s all I’d ever learned about it. So it was a huge shock to me a) to be a single childless middle-aged woman, social plankton effectively and see how everyone treated me.
Geeta: Well, yeah. On that point, because I have read out some of the things you said around this about feeling like a social pariah and one thing that really stood out to me was something that you said around the idea that say in the 50s and the 60s, the biggest taboo for a woman was to be an unwed mother. And now well, certainly when you were in your sort of late 30s, early 40s, you felt like the biggest taboo was actually being single and childless.
Jody: Actually I think it’s the biggest problem for the Daily Mail. The sort of shock these women are sort of ruining the life and the fabric of Britain. It will have been unwed mothers in the 60s and now it will be these ‘career women’ – I love these career women! I’ve never met one. I’ve been forced to kind of look at the Daily Mail, and they’ve only found one and it was all about how she loved shoes more than more than babies. I mean, she was very, very odd. And because actually I just know women with jobs and I also don’t know women who have delayed, intentionally delayed, having a child to prioritize their career. It is just that actually many of them have been forced to make that choice. It’s been a rock and a hard place choice. Either there hasn’t been a partner during that time, or they’ve had a partner and they haven’t been able to afford to, or they’ve been doing fertility treatments which have taken a long time and maybe have or haven’t worked. There have been many, many structural reasons why.
Jody: I don’t know anyone who says ‘I’ll just leave it.’ You know, ‘I’ll just leave it another five years, it’ll be fine.’ I don’t know anyone like that. In my experience, women are thinking about this quite seriously. From quite young. Wondering, is this right for me? Is becoming a mum really right for me? through to women who are seriously ambivalent, which is that kind of really don’t know which way to go and they’re paralyzed and guilty — by the way, on being ambivalent — because the narrative is that, ‘If you were a real woman, you’d know. You know, real women want babies. So there’s something a bit odd about you.’ Through to women who are desperate to become mothers and maybe, and do or don’t succeed you know, in that quest. I just don’t know anyone who’s just not thinking about it. Maybe I don’t meet the right people.
Geeta: I think you’ve met a lot of women. I think you’ve probably got quite a good sense certainly of the people that you’ve spoken to and there are a lot of women that you’ve spoken to,
Jody: Gosh, thousands and thousands! And also people looking at the next generation, looking at my nephews and nieces and god-children. There’s one family where there are four daughters, my nieces by my first marriage, and I’m very close to them. And I’ve been an important role model to them of a different way to live a life, they have many others, all of their other aunts are the mothers of their cousins. So they’re very different. They’re kind of part of the mummy world whereas I’ve always been, for a long time, I was the kind of the glamorous groovy aunt. I was someone a bit different. And they’ve been talking to me about choices and opportunities around motherhood since their teenage years. And I remember one of them came to a talk I gave, I think about five years ago now the youngest one, who’s now in her mid-20s. So yeah, she was younger than that. She was in her late-teens at the time. And I talked about childfree as well as childless. And she came up to me afterward and said, ‘You mean you don’t have to have children?’ And I said, ‘No, it can be a choice not to,’ and I was stunned that, she was probably 17-18, part of very liberal, broad-minded famil and she’d known me all her life – and still that dominant pronatalist narrative that that is what you’re going to do as a woman had never come across her path.
Geeta: We’ve talked about this a bit on the podcast with Stella Duffy who was talking about that sense of how internalized this narrative is and also Zoe Noble who set up ‘We are Childfree‘, she always knew she didn’t want children. And that was very much something she knew, but that a lot of people that she’s spoken to, as you say, just sort of didn’t realise it was a choice. It was this assumption of like, of course, I guess that’s what I’ll be doing.
Jody: And you sort of had that similar assumption yourself. You know that I guess it’ll just kind of happen. And I think that can be very tough when you do come down on the side of wanting to be a mum, and it doesn’t happen, because then there can be the kind of the self-blame like, ‘I should have got my shit together sooner. I should have been clearer about this. I should have been on this determined path towards motherhood’, as if our own agency and our own decisions are always the deciding factor here.
Jody: And I think that one of the really tricky things is that fertility, like ageing, menopause death, it’s not always under our control. And certainly finding a partner who is willing and suitable to have children with during that, you know, life is long, fertility is short. I would say that certainly compared to my cohort, the 1960s cohort, the 1970s cohort that I know of, in Gateway Women, I’d say that those who are childless by circumstance, the vast majority of them are childless due to social infertility, which is not having a partner and again is massively on the rise.
It is also the least discussed part of how to be childless when that wasn’t your choice because there is a double layering of shame.
From the patriarchy and from pronatalism, which is no one chose you to be the father of their children and to be the mother of their children. You’re kind of doubly rejected. It is so cruel. You’ve only got to look at the crazy cat lady thing. It’s not about cats. it’s about childless women. If there was a woman who lived in a house with loads of cats, but she had children, she’d have loads of ‘family pets.’ It’s about being an oddball, an outcast, because you’re single and you’re childless. I take great offence to people thinking that this is an acceptably funny joke. It’s not funny. It’s cruel. Because it’s making out somehow that the only thing that will normalise someone is having a partner and children. I know plenty of weird people with both! It doesn’t do that. It’s cruel.
Geeta: So much to get into on this one Jody because I think what you’re saying about, it’s almost like the least talked about aspects and from what you’re seeing, one of the biggest, and I just want to acknowledge that there are, of course, different ways of becoming a parent without a partner. You can have sperm donation if you’re a woman, you can foster, you can adopt, but I also understand that for lots of women, they want to become a mother with a partner, and that’s the experience that they wanted.
Jody: Absolutely. And I don’t think that women should be shamed for wanting that. Because there is this idea that, you know, when I was in my mid-40s, and I was single and childless, people would suggest that to me, ‘Why don’t you have a baby on your own!’ – as if it hadn’t occurred to me – and these would be the same people that would, if I’d said I was thinking of getting a dog, would say, ‘Well, who’s going to look after it in the daytime?’ And yet, they would suggest that I had a baby on my own, or, ‘Why don’t you just adopt? (‘Just,’ I love those ‘justs’!) It’s like, let me see: single, divorced, not owning my own home, working freelance, no savings. It’s like, there’s no way any adoption agency would have accepted me as a suitable candidate! You know, the needs of the child in that situation are paramount. And they will always choose to place, if there is an opportunity to place a child with a well set up stable couple who has a big support network around them – logistically, financially, socially, emotionally – that’s where that child will be best placed.
Jody: So there is a lot of misunderstanding. Many Gateway Women, of my members are single, childless women who tried to have a baby on their own. But IVF mostly fails.
The most likely outcome of fertility treatment is childlessness.
Most of the women I know who have tried to have a child on their own, you know, they’ve been in their late 30s or 40s before they’ve done that, and it’s very hard to get, it’s not impossible, but it’s very hard and by no means a done deal to get pregnant like that.
Geeta: So many different experiences there as well. Like, that’s what I feel is so important is to just acknowledge the fact that every person has got their own story, and their own approach. They might actually have tried, as you say, tried IVF on their own and that didn’t work out. I wanted to ask you, because I think that when we talk about experiences of women who really want to become mothers, and rightly so there is a heaviness that is attached to that because it’s a form of grief, a grief for a life that you had dreamt of and that needs to be acknowledged. But I wanted to ask, because you’re such a beacon of hope and empowerment, I know, for lots of women, but how do you help women, perhaps those women that if you didn’t even get to meet someone, and that’s what they wanted, or tried on their own and have exhausted all the possibilities.
Jody: Well, the place you’ve come to when you’ve exhausted all possibilities of a dream is grief. And I think probably the most important thing I help women to realise is that grief isn’t an illness. It isn’t a character weakness. It’s a psychological process that enables you to get to the other side of this. It is the human emotion that arises. It’s a psychological, physiological, emotional process and spiritual that arises to transform us to someone who can live without that thing we wanted. It is a process of profound identity transformation. It is not a lifetime sentence of misery. But it is a hugely transformative process that women need support with.
Jody: Grief is a social emotion. Because of the shame of childlessness, and because of the fact it’s not understood by therapists, or doctors, or the media yet, a lot of women suffer in silence with really profound grief. When that’s happening at midlife, you can imagine the perimenopause is in there, bit of depression, it can get very confusing as to what it is I need to do to feel like me again.
Jody: And the answer is you need to do your grief work and you need a supportive place to do it. You need others, like that time I was telling you with my blog, you know, when those women wrote back to me basically said ‘me too.’ I had tears running down my face. Because for the first time I didn’t feel like I was going crazy, or making a fuss about nothing. Because I tried everything to get through this that I knew of and you know I don’t think you and I are that dissimilar, you know I’m quite positive, quite empowered. You know, I could do my research, get out there, whatever it was that needed to be done, I was trying and it wasn’t working. Because what I needed to do was grieve but I didn’t know how.
And grief needs that other. It is a form of love.
It needs that other to kind of just to reflect back to you. ‘Yeah, me too. I feel like that, got it. You know, I completely lost my rag the other day with some poor person that was working in customer support on the phone and’ you know, because of the anger of grief sort of spills out. Or you know, someone obsessively reading terrible things happening in the news, just so they can imagine that their children aren’t going to have to experience that world. You know, that’s part of the bargaining of grief.
Jody: And when you start to understand there is an architecture to this process that is unique to childlessness, unique to each childless person, but also there is a kind of a basic blueprint of what childless grief is. And then it’s like, okay, there’s a framework I can work with here. And my book takes people through that framework. And then as you start to come out the other side, as this new version of yourself, who is quite different, I am quite different to the person who went in, I am so much feistier. You look around you and you’re going oh, so where in the world am I going to put this mother’s heart of mine? This nurturing part of me that is connected to the future. It’s connected to my legacy. It’s connected to the future. What is a meaningful, to me, thing to do with this kind of, I suppose nurturing benevolent energy. Men have it too, but I’m talking specifically about women who’ve longed to have biological children. There is this constellated idea that it will go into those children. It takes a long time in the grieving process as part of that to realise you can take that back and you can rededicate it to a life of passion and purpose. That looks just the way you want it.
Jody: And your life actually might not look any different on the outside to anyone else, or it might be completely transformed. Doesn’t really matter. Does it feel peaceful and passionate and purposeful to you? You know, it might be an amazing thing you do in your garden. It might be a community garden. It might be that actually, you do some extraordinary piece of public work around gardening, just to use that as a sort of metaphor. You don’t have to do a Jody. You don’t have to write a book. You don’t have to become a spokesperson, you know, each to our own, but I also think being a childless or childfree woman who is unashamed and if someone asks them a question, you know, doesn’t hide from it. Each of us is a role model. We have a powerful influence in the world by refusing to be shamed by the culture.
Geeta: I’m just like nodding like 100% with this because I feel whether you’re childfree by choice, childless by circumstance, I think there’s so much shame that is kind of thrown at you. And I do feel like people are challenging it. I really do. And I feel that you know, women who have children who I’ve talked about who’ve listened to the podcast have also said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so glad people are talking about this, when it comes to my daughter, I don’t want her to feel shame around this.’ So I think it’s like a kind of collective feeling, but I just, like you just want to look shame in the eye and go ‘I’m not having it.’ Because once you do that, it’s the most, it’s a hard thing, and sometimes you don’t realise how shame might have made its way into your life, but it’s so freeing because it’s like you’re giving yourself permission just to own your life and not take all this stuff in.
Jody: I mean, it’s not possible to not take it in, but I think it’s about developing a questioning mind. I think for me, when I first started to understand about pronatalism, it was a bit like that pill? The best book on it is called The Baby Matrix, and it kind of uses that metaphor of the pill from the Matrix. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, it is everywhere, pronatalism. When I started to understand that, I actually felt some profound sadness as I started to understand how pronatalism had been shaping my thoughts and shaping my shame and limiting my outlook for so long.
Jody: I was probably several years into my, about 46, 47 when I first came across pronatalism. And I’ve been in the kind of baby mania and then grieving place for a long time. I’ve been trying for children since I was 29. That was a long, long period. And I thought, goodness, if I had understood this messaging, and how pervasive it is, and if I’d been able to go, oh, look, there’s pronatalism. Is that really true? Do I really agree with that? Is that really relevant to my life? It’s almost like the way we’re having to become very media-savvy about narratives and not sort of accept them at face value. I also think we need to really up our pronatalism spotting game and go ‘So what I’m taking from this is that this person is more valuable than this person.’
Jody: And if you imagine, let’s say twin sisters, growing up, going to university, studying the same subject, they’re both heterosexual, they both have boyfriends in college. And one of those relationships survives college or university, and one of them sort of breaks down towards the end. The one that survives, a couple of years later, they get married and they start having children and her twin sister actually doesn’t meet someone immediately, has those classic, serial monogamy relationships going through her 30s and arrives in her early 40s childless. Now let’s say that they’re identical women with very similar personalities. So at that point, one of them becomes childless, which means every decision she ever made in her life was flawed. That’s what pronatalism says, it’s your fault. You should have got this organised earlier, and the one who just accidentally, you know, so much of partnering and meeting is luck and timing. So she ends up with a family and somehow she’s this perfect example of motherhood and her twin sister is a failure. Well, I’m sorry, that just doesn’t wash. But you have to really start to challenge every narrative that comes at you around that, that being a mother is the grown-up way to be, the right way to be and anything else is kind of ‘Ah it’s nice, you know, it’s you’ve got a nice job, but you’re not a mum.’
Geeta: Something that I thought I wanted to get your sort of sense of really, it kind of follows on from that idea around the strength of the kind of the mother identity I guess, because of pronatalism, not necessarily because of mums themselves, but because of this, the way we’ve been kind of brought up, and you wrote ‘We women without children need to become a more cohesive bunch if we’re to survive in the Mumsnet era. We want to show how much we have to offer. And that we have meaning in our lives. It’s just that this meaning is something other than our offspring.’ And the reason I read that, I wanted to go into it, is because this podcast is about, as we said experiences of women who are childfree by choice, childless by circumstance, and I wonder, do you sometimes feel that there needs to be more of a kind of not commonality but kind of a coming together? Because whilst the intention might be different, the reasons for not having children might be different, there is also commonness in the sense that none of us have kids.
Jody: Absolutely. And it’s a tricky one. Certainly in my early days of grieving my childlessness, and I was looking for information, all I could find at that time was a few childfree websites from America which were absolutely terrifying, because they were really radical and aggressive towards parents and towards children. I was terrified that people would think that that was me. Those websites do not represent any childfree person I’ve ever met subsequently, but they kind of scared me. Also, I had internalised the pronatalist idea that women who choose not to have children are sort of deviant, weird, unnatural child-haters. I don’t believe that anymore. But I had internalised that narrative, so, therefore, I didn’t want to be identified with them.
Jody: Now, if we fast forward to sort of where I am now, in many ways, I would call myself ‘adapted childfree,’ which is that I feel as at peace, I imagine (I will never know), with my childlessness as if I had chosen it. However, I call myself childless out of respect for my childfree sisters, for whom it has its own meaning and identity, but also out of respect for the journey I’ve been on, of grieving my childlessness. I think it’s a spectrum. You know, childless – childfree, I don’t think it’s two buckets, and also if it were it would need to be a lot more buckets! I’m not a big fan of any binaries. And that’s another one I’m not a big fan of. But it took me a long time to get my head around this. And we have very few people within the sort of the childless and childfree communities – Stella and I, we’re colleagues, we’re of a similar age – who’s thinking has gone on for long enough that they’ve kind of developed a really broad position. And then it becomes easier as a childless woman to really feel more childfree and to include the perspectives of childfree people.
Jody: But when you’re grieving your childlessness, it can be very difficult to occupy the same space as someone who is celebrating their childlessness. I’ve been at public talks where I’ve been talking about childlessness to a mixed room, you know, not a sort of invited audience. I’ve had childfree women stand up and go ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with all you people. You know, I don’t have kids and it’s great.’ You know, read the room. Doesn’t go down well, but that is an unempathic childfree heckler but you can get presented with that, unfortunately, quite a lot.
Jody: It’s hard for childfree women because they want to talk about how great it is, and we’re on the floor. So in those early days, it can be difficult to find common ground however, as you move through your grief, and also as you become more educated, because we all come in through a very personal door, and it’s rare that someone comes in with a broad understanding of the kind of the literature, the community, the history. We don’t, we come in through a personal door of pain. I think then it can become easier to become a broader church for want of a better ideology and you know, the LGBTQIA+ movement, they have a lot of differences, but they have found a way to come together and to shed the shame.
Jody: Childfree, childless, Nomos is my word, which stands for not mothers. It has gone into the language. It can be used for childless or childfree or anyone in between. It’s one word. As Stella said, it would be great to have a word that didn’t focus on the deficit. I think that word is woman, but we’re not there yet. You know, once upon a time, there was a word called suffragettes, which was just created by the Daily Mail. They called themselves the women’s suffrage movement. By the way, it was the Daily Mail that called them the suffragettes to diminish it. But that’s the one that stuck. We don’t call women who vote suffragettes anymore, because in this country in the UK, women have the vote. It’s now normal. So we don’t need that terminology anymore. We’re not at the point where we can actually leave the terminology of childless and childfree behind yet. When we do my work will be done.
Geeta: Well, thank you so much for such a considered, honest and open response to that question because, I think it’s like you say, it’s so personal, but I think that it’s important for us to be able to have these conversations as well, so that it doesn’t feel like we’re just being really tribal.
Jody: Absolutely. I really agree.
Geeta: On that point, as well, in building empathy, in the UK, Mother’s Day is coming up at the end of March. I wanted to just ask, as someone who wanted to become a mother, for those who perhaps have no conflicting feelings around it, what would your advice or what would your thoughts be on how to be a space of love, of compassion on that day? What do you see? I know, it must be personal too. But Mother’s Day can be quite triggering I imagine.
Jody: It’s a very layered day. It’s triggering for so many reasons, mothers who’ve died. Children who have been un-mothered, children who have very difficult relationships with their mothers, who are estranged from their mothers. It’s not just those of us who are childless and childfree, who may have complicated feelings around it. I’ve noticed there are a lot more companies starting to offer opt-outs for Mother’s Day Marketing, which is hopeful. I think that may be also because of the many people who have unfortunately lost their mums during the pandemic. I think there are a lot more grieving children around than there were two years ago in the UK.
Jody: The way I get through it is also remembering that mothering is a verb, not a noun, that there are many things in this world that need nurturing and that we are mothers in our hearts, whether we have children or not, if you’re childless. And also I have to say, the childfree women that I know, most of them are very involved in children’s lives and enjoy children. And as much as it’s important for childfree women to get a more nuanced understanding of childless women, I think it’s really important, it’s been really important for me to read childfree literature.
Jody: I think a book that really really blew it open for me was Meghan Daum‘s book, edited selection of essays, Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not To Have Kids. They’re not all essays by her, she edits them. It really showed me that often the path to being childfree often can be very complex and can also include some grief and ambivalence and lots of other things, too. They didn’t just wake up and go ‘I don’t want children and never have to think about it again.’ It’s a complex human experience, choosing not to have children. It’s a complex human experience having them, it’s a complex human experience wanting them and not having them. You know, we have so much more in common than we don’t. But I think everyone if they’re able to, needs to, perhaps when they come through their grieving process, needs to broaden their understanding of each other’s experience. And maybe Mother’s Day isn’t the best day to do that. Maybe that’s a good day to stay home and eat chocolate if it’s hurting. But I hope that maybe some of the other days that is possible.
Geeta: Yes. And to be honest, I do think every day is a good day to eat chocolate. So I’ll just thank you so much for your openness, for everything you’re doing with Gateway Women because I think that you are a beacon of light to so many. We’ve had Yvonne John who was the first on the podcast.
Jody: Yay, Love Yvonne!
Geeta: She talks so openly about how Gateway Women helped her and I know she now runs workshops for Gateway Women. So thank you so much Jody for being on the podcast.
Jody: Thank you. Geeta for having me. It’s been a delightful and very wide ranging conversation. I really enjoyed it.
Geeta: Thank you to Jody for your openness and honesty. It is not easy to speak about grief and shame. Gateway Women is providing a supportive network for women from all backgrounds. And from what I’ve seen, it’s also a space of empowerment. I thought Jody’s words around creating a life of passion and purpose, and doing it on your own terms was really powerful.
Geeta: If you’d like to learn about Gateway Women then you can go to gateway-women.com. All the details are in the show notes too. They have a range of workshops, talks and resources, which are really worth checking out. Well that’s it for this week. I would love to hear what you have made of the 1 in 5 podcasts so far. Please do post a review or you can find me on Instagram or Twitter. It’s Geeta Pendse. My Info is also in the show notes so you can find it there. As always, thank you so much for listening. And please do share the podcast if you are enjoying what you’re listening and it resonates till next time. Goodbye.