Mum’s Not The Word: Childless, Childfree by Denise Felkin is a new book published by Earthworld in the UK on 4 June 2019 which shares stories of choice, freedom, regret and pain in a series of 50 photographic images, each one of a different woman lying naked on a duvet in the foetal position. All of the women have one thing in common – they do not have children.
Statistics show that an increasing number of women remain childless: currently around 20% in the UK. The book sets out to challenge the antiquated and negative stereotypes that picture women without children as selfish, half-women, spinsters, crazy cat ladies or barren.
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Denise came to me seeking participants for the portraits and at first I wasn’t sure – naked portraits of women without children? How is that going to help anyone take us seriously? But when I saw some of the early shots and was hit by their power I understood what Denise’s vision was and have been happy to support the project. As I wrote in my testimonial, with which the book opens:
This important and poignant book of photo essays by Denise Felkin brings some much-needed humanity to bear on the harsh judgements that our pronatalist society holds about women who don’t have children. Each naked portrait is tender, vulnerable and raw, and the accompanying participant comment is by turns shocking, illumination, refreshing and heartbreaking. These women are literally laid bare, and this somehow gives them a greater right for their truths to be heard. Whether the women are childless due to infant loss, through motherhood ambivalence leading to a happy (or regretful) life without children, failed infertility treatments, clear-sighted self-awareness, unchosen singleness or other complex factors, they lie here and challenge us to appreciate for a moment what like might be like in their skin. Often those who’ve chosen non-motherhood – the childfree – are placed in one box and those for whom this wasn’t what they’d hoped for (the childless) in another; yet this courageous and sympathetic book lays them side-by-side and, in doing so, reveals the lived complexity and ambiguity of being a non-mother in our motherhood-obsessed world.
The women featured come from all walks of life, and are different ages. Cover girl Ellen simply says, “I never had a good relationship with my mother.”
For Anthea, it’s a different story: “I never thought I would get to 45 years of age with no children or partner. Sharing my childless experience on my Youtube vlog helped me immensely, but whenever I think I’m over it, someone posts their new baby pic online and my heart aches. I don’t think that will ever go away.”
Lauren speaks of the grief that all of us who are childless not by choice have to work through: “Until I grieved for the children I never had, my inside world and my outside world were very disconnected. I hid my pain. Now I can be me, vulnerable n’all, and embrace the whole gamut of emotions that is this beautiful life, both for myself and with others.”
Xanthe touches on this too: “Not having a child has been a loss that has made me face death. In the Paleolithic, the dead were covered with red ochre, placed in a foetal position facing towards the sun, then buried beneath where they normally slept when alive.”
Others, like Jolie, share about their experience of IVF: “My husband and I did IVF three times, trying for six years before deciding enough was enough and to move on with our lives. The universe clearly had other plans for us because the moment we walked away from that unbelievably painful hunger our lives began to flourish. I’m now a theatre maker, published author, and international jetsetter. My husband runs his own laptop repair company.”
Debbie reveals one of the many strands of complexity that can be part of being childless by circumstance: “After an abusive first marriage in my twenties, it took all of my thirties to recover from it. Meeting my current husband at 40, I realised that it was too late. He has children who have their own children.”
Naomi too speaks of the hidden pain of being childless by circumstance, still something that mainstream society is still barely aware of, but which a 2010 data meta-analysis (which I quote in my book) suggests is the reason that 80% of women are childless at midlife: “I always wanted to be a partner and a mum, to love and raise a family of my own, but it just didn’t happen. Instead of embracing motherhood, I’m learning (or not) to live with otherhood: deep grief, sadness, shame and uncertainty.”
Faye shares something that many Gateway Women encounter in the working world as a woman without children: “I have been told by many doctors that I probably can’t have children. I convinced myself that I didn’t want any, and ploughed headlong into my career. Once I’d got to the top, I worked hard and sacrificed a lot, but I found I was still lacking because all my peers were mothers. I don’t win an accolade for working hard because I don’t juggle this with being a working mum.”
Mel speaks about the speed with which life creeps up on you when you are busy making other plans: “I never expected to be childless at the age of 45. Time just caught up with me. I have been having too much of a good time to sit and think about it for too long. I hope I don’t wake up one day with regret. In the meantime, I will just keep on entertaining and taking care of my own inner child and continue loving life.”
Helen debunks the whole, “Why don’t you just have a baby on your own” + “Why don’t you just adopt?” bingos on their heads with her story: “I’d always thought I’d have children and, after a long-term relationship ended, I tried lots of ways to make that dream happen – IVF, a conversation about sperm donation with a colleague, and adoption. The latter process was long, arduous and intense: so many challenges from an agency that turned out to be very risk averse (not that I was a risk; the staff there were just scared). I became worn out with the whole process, and decided to be brave and stop.”
One of the things I am incredibly privileged to experience in my own work is to be the vault of thousands of such private stories. Each one is unique – there is no one ‘way’ to be childless or childfree – and often not a clear line between the two either as the words would suggest. If the next generation of women without children are to take their place as fully-realised, complex individuals, and not as the stereotypes and ciphers we are so often reduced to, then more of these stories need to be out in the world, and part of the complex, messy and unscripted discourse of what it means to be a twenty-first century woman.
Thank you Denise for making us visible in all our perfect, imperfect glory.
Denise Felkin is a British photographer whose work migrates between creative portraiture and documentary photography. She is driven by research-led projects and collaborates with her subjects to create cutting-edge images that speak about current issues, to reveal a truthful voice, and promote unity, equality and compassion. She has been nominated for or has won many awards, including as a finalist in the Sony World Photography Awards 2016 and National Open Art 2017 and an Honourable Mention in Julia Margaret Cameron: Women Seen by Women 2018. You can read more about Denise here. Or connect with her on Instagram or Twitter.
Mum’s not the word: Childless Childfree by Denise Felkin (4 June 2019) is published by Earthworld, an imprint of Veloce Publishing Ltd with a recommended retail price of GBP £19.99 for a large format, full-colour, art-quality photography book. Order it at your local bookstore or online http://bit.ly/MumsNotTheWord Also on Facebook and Twitter.