[October 2021] Jody Day interviewed by Laura Behnke for ‘The Life Actually Podcast‘ in which we discuss, amongst other things: the data around the numbers of childless/free women, and why it’s on the rise; about shame as a powerful tool of social control; about how not having children means you also won’t get to be a grandmother either; about my own unplanned pregnancy and abortion at 20 and how this is a hidden part of many women’s stories, both mothers and childless women; about how our childhood experience of being mothered may influence our later thoughts about becoming mothers ourselves; about how the opportunities opening up for women due to second-wave feminism may have impacted the messages received and choices made by women born since the 60s; about the anguish of unexplained infertility, the fact that I never ever even allowed the word ‘infertile’ into my consciousness (hello denial!) and the impact that had on my marriage (and divorce); about the shocking truth of how low the chance of having a baby via fertility treatments really is; about addiction and codependency and the pain of living with and loving an addict; about how ‘maternal’ choices sometimes involve walking away from having a baby in the wrong circumstances, even if that means childlessness; about how a very painful part of the grief of childlessness (and many other forms of grief) can be a tendency to blame ourselves for how things have turned out; about how I gave myself permission to grieve my abortion as well as my childlessness; about the power and necessity of ritual in helping childless women to grieve their losses; about how grief is the engine of change and how understanding and working with loss is the missing piece that enables change, any change; about how unhelpful it is to suggest to a single, childless middle-aged woman that she ‘just adopt’ without any appreciation of the emotional & structural issues involved; about the #FriendshipApocalypse of childlessness; about the next stage of my work with Gateway Women with my Conscious Childless Elderwomen project and wanting to show how a childless woman can be a good ancester too. And more! Click here to listen to the podcast, here to follow Laura on Instagram @TheLifeActuallyPodcast and here for more of Jody’s podcast interviews.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
HEADLINE QUOTE FROM JODY: The thing about involuntary childlessness is that it impacts you, right across the life course, just as motherhood does. People think somehow that for women who are childless that it’s all about not having a baby, and ‘Really aren’t you over that yet?’ But it’s so deeply entwined with our idea of feminine identity and the many roles that women are allowed to play across their lifetime. It’s a living, lifelong loss, which is why it’s so important to become skilled at grieving.
LAURA: Hey there, I’m Laura Behnke an expectation-busting coach, speaker, writer and storyteller. I have a question for you: are you ready to get real? Are you ready for real conversations with real women about real lives that defy traditional norms? Well, then you’re in the right place. I spent 16 years in television as a sports anchor and reporter, that was 16 years of trying to look and be perfect, 16 years of hiding what my life was really like, the ups and downs, the unmet expectations, the things I thought I should be doing by a certain age, but I discovered that when we give ourselves permission to tell our stories, we help other women to do the same, we shine a spotlight on each other. So, this is where we share our truths, this is where women from all different perspectives paths and backgrounds gather to redefine what it means to be a happy and successful woman right now. There’s the life you’ve thought you would have. And then there’s your life actually this is where we celebrate the ‘actually,’ this is The Life Actually Podcast.
LAURA: Hello and welcome. This is The Life Actually Podcast and I’m your host Laura Behnke I am so glad to have you here with us for episode number 36. This conversation is going down as one of my most favourite to date because it is such an important conversation, and one we simply are not having enough. Today we are tackling the fate of being childless not by choice, with the incredible Jody Day. This conversation though and Jody’s experience is really about so much more than living a life without becoming a mum. We’re about to jump right into the thick of grief: what it means, why it’s an important part of life that we all must experience in order to keep on going.
LAURA: Jody is a psychotherapist and the founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women which she founded in 2011. Now it has a social reach of over 2 million people. Do you see why we need to be having this conversation more often? She’s also the author of the book, Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning, and a Fulfilling Future Without Children. As her book title says Jody’s life has not gone the way she expected from ending a pregnancy when she was 20, to then later struggling to conceive and seeing her marriage end, to continuing to hold out hope of having children, and then eventually coming to the realisation, at 44, that she would never be a mother. In many ways, that’s where her story begins, or at least the incredibly important work that she is now doing begins. Jody realised that there were no resources on being childless that were available when she needed them and that this topic, in general, had been silenced by society. That was not okay with her. Jody is often referred to as the voice of the childless generation and sometimes as the Beyoncé of childlessness. Yes, you heard that right! And as you listen to this episode, I think you’re going to understand why. But what Jody and I talk about today is about so much more than being childless not by choice. We dive deep into the grieving process and how it is an important part of everyone’s lives. This is a very powerful conversation that so many of us need to hear. And I’m so grateful to have had it. This is Jody ‘s story. Jody, welcome to The Life Actually Podcast. I am absolutely thrilled that you’re here and that we are about to have this conversation. Thank you for being here and sharing your story.
JODY: Thank you so much Laura, it’s absolutely lovely to be here.
LAURA: Well you were recommended by one of our listeners who contacted me and said ‘You have to talk to Jody Day!’ I was not following you at that point I was not familiar with your work and not only am I now happy to have you on the podcast, but I am just very grateful to find you and your voice, just for myself and to be able to pass that along to other people who are in this community because you are talking about things that are so important and it’s so much more common than we give it credit for because we’re not talking about this on a regular basis.
JODY: Yes, thank you the numbers of women who are childless or childfree are so much higher than people realise. It’s an average of one in five in most developed countries, it’s about one in six in the moment in the United States, one in five in the UK, it’s one in four in Ireland, Spain, Italy, one in three in Germany, in Japan. This is a massive thing and I think it’s a growing issue as well. I think the millennial generation and those that come afterwards, choosing not to have children or childlessness choosing you is going to become a lot more common.
LAURA: Definitely. Your book is wonderful. I cannot wait to finish it. I started to dive in and flipped through some of the pages and I read the first part where you’re really starting to tell your story and there was a part of it that I wrote down because I wanted to mention it because it speaks so much to the point of this podcast. My goal and my mission in speaking to women, which is this idea of sharing our stories, and why it’s so important that we share our stories: “Stories touch us, move us, change us. Telling our stories, hearing others’ stories and finally feeling heard changes us too.” Yes! That’s why we’re having this conversation right now. When topics like this aren’t discussed, when we have one idea in society about how a woman’s life is supposed to go, hearing other versions is crucial.
JODY: It is and the story of being childless is one that has been silenced by shame. Shame is a very powerful tool of social and personal control. When we feel ashamed about something we don’t talk about it. And when society makes us feel ashamed about something, it doesn’t allow us space for those conversations. The motherhood narrative has become the most dominant narrative about women’s lives, and it does give the impression that that is every woman’s life experience and that goes on to being a grandmother as well. An awful lot of people aren’t experiencing that either.
LAURA: Yes you hit on the grandmother part of it too which we’re going to get into during this conversation, because if you’re not a mother, then that means you won’t be a grandmother. There are so many different layers to this experience that I am very happy that we are going to be able to have a chance to talk about. So what I want to do is I want to go back to when you were envisioning the way your life was going to go, you say in the book that especially when you were younger you were a planner. Everything was planned. So what was your plan, how did you think life was going to go?
JODY: I had quite a few different plans, life has thrown plenty of curveballs at me and I’ve always adapted. I got pregnant by accident when I was 20; I was in a very loving, long-term relationship but I was absolutely terrified at the thought of being a mum. I came from a very fractured home. I was the daughter of a teenage mum, you know, an unplanned pregnancy, motherhood came too soon and under the wrong circumstances for her, she was not a happy mum. So I didn’t grow up with this idea that family was this amazing experience, because being a kid and being in a family wasn’t an amazing experience for me. So I didn’t really know I’d made the decision, but I sort of made a decision that that wasn’t what I wanted.
JODY: And also all around me, I was born in ’64, my growing up years were the 70s, second-wave feminism was really, really changing women’s lives. My mother, the other mothers around me, my teachers at school and society saw a different future ahead for young girls. A future that had never been there for them, where you could own your own home, earn your own living, write your own checks, keep your own money, make your own decisions. Where you could be a doctor, not just a nurse, all kinds of things. My Barbie was air hostess Barbie – I was going to travel the world. It wasn’t ‘don’t have children,’ but it was very much ‘There’s so much else out there for you.’ And that was the narrative of my generation. So when I got pregnant accidentally at 20, I took on that internalized message which is that having children ruins your life.
JODY: That wasn’t the whole story, but that’s kind of what I picked up from teachers, my mother, and from the culture. I was also really worried – I was too young to really understand these thoughts at the time – that I would parent as I had been parented. And I didn’t want that either. I was too young and still a bit too traumatized to know that actually if you get conscious about these things they don’t have to be repeated, but I didn’t know any of that. This was still a long time ago, the only person we knew doing therapy was Woody Allen! No one did therapy in the UK. So I had an abortion which I don’t regret, it was the right thing to do. And in the UK, it’s not such a hot topic, it’s a medical topic and a personal topic, it is not a political or a religious topic. It’s still a very difficult experience to go through. And it’s still a difficult one to talk openly about which is why I always talk about it, because one in three women in the UK, one in four women in America, has a termination. Many of those go on to be mothers, many of them don’t. And that can be really hard when it comes to grieving your childlessness if you think ‘I had a chance at motherhood, and I didn’t take it. Am I really allowed to be sad?’ That can be very, very difficult. So I think if I have a superpower I’m a taboo buster, so let’s just get that one right out the gate.
JODY: I moved on through my 20s, that relationship ended. Not long after, a couple of years later, I met a man who would become my husband, now ex-husband, but when we first met and were getting serious and thinking about getting married, I said, ‘I don’t think I want to have children.’ And he went, ‘Okay.’ So then we went on and got married, then after a few years of being married and realising that children didn’t necessarily mean my childhood – he came from a big family, he was one of six, they really accepted and loved me – I had a different experience of what family might be. And I thought, okay, so I said, ‘Actually, I think I do want to have kids’ and he was like, ‘Okay.’ So these huge, life-changing conversations that can really derail relationships if they’re not out in the open were very easy for us. But that was the only easy thing.
JODY: I then started trying to conceive, I thought as I had had a pregnancy when I was younger, everything works. But I didn’t conceive and nothing happened. I wasn’t particularly worried. A couple of years later, I started having investigations, I had an operation called a laparoscopy where they send a camera in through your navel to have a look around to check if there was damage from the abortion. Absolutely nothing. The very avuncular gynecologist surgeon afterwards said ‘First class uterus! Finest uterus I’ve seen all week, you lovely young people just go and have lots of sex!’ There was nothing wrong. There was nothing wrong with our hormones, nothing wrong with anything physically, hormonally all the workups, there was nothing there, so we just carried on trying. Unexplained infertility.
JODY: The marriage moved through our 30s. We had a business together because I gave up my business to put all of my energy into building his business, because I thought I’d be pregnant in a few years and his business would be the one that supported us while our kids were growing up. I now can’t quite believe I did that because I was always much better at business than him! He got immersed in his work and partying hard, and I got immersed in really trying to get pregnant. I never used the word ‘infertile,’ ever, about myself, I never even owned that consciousness, I was someone who was going to get pregnant soon. I had no doubt in my mind at all. I just kept going and I kept trying every alternative thing, standing on my head, doing all kinds of crazy things that you do when you’re trying to get pregnant. Vitamins, treatments. We were just getting to the point where it was time to really take seriously and save up the money to do fertility treatments. And really, things just were so bad in our marriage with you the amount of partying he was doing and the stress that that was placing us and our business under. I was the level pair of hands, the level head holding the whole show together.
JODY: And I just reached my limit. I just couldn’t cope anymore. I had a nervous breakdown. To use St Brené’s brilliant expression ‘nervous breakdown slash spiritual awakening.’ And I woke up in my life. I looked around and I thought, oh my goodness, I can’t bring a child into this mess. I think that was a very hard decision, but also a very maternal one when I realised this isn’t right. I didn’t know I was making a decision at that point that would lead to childlessness. I didn’t think of it at the time. We split up. We got divorced. I got back out into the dating pool with, I would say, indecent haste, because I was just on a mission to meet someone, do IVF and have a family. And I thought there was time.
JODY: I was so shocked when I discovered the truth about fertility, which I had been ignorant of. I didn’t even really know your eggs age, I feel really embarrassed. I am 57 now, there is so much more awareness now. Not just that fertility declines in women, but why and when, but it is on a bell curve and for some women it’s going to be much earlier than others. I think for me, I was probably already in perimenopause at about 38. It was tough. I had two sort of good relationships. Let’s just call them relationships! Serious relationships, there we are. That’s the word. Neither of them were right to do IVF in. Then I found myself 44 and a half, having split up from the second of those two relationships, realising that even if I did meet someone, we’d need to know each other for at least a year before we could even think about it. I’d be 45 and a half. Even my optimism couldn’t quite hack that. I knew it was game over for me. I became not someone who would one day become a mother, but someone who was always going to be childless.
LAURA: And that is a very heavy, a very difficult realisation to come to and after having gone through everything you did. I really appreciate you saying that when you realised at this point in your marriage, that it was actually a maternal decision to not have a child, like we have such a narrow view of what a maternal feeling is. But to make that type of a decision is so important and also you know from your maternal instinct, you knew this was not the place for a child to be.
JODY: I’ve grown up in chaos. I didn’t want my children to have that. I didn’t want them to have a father who was emotionally immature and all over the place. You know I wanted to have someone who would be a supportive and together adult in their life. It was fine for me not to have one in mine, but I didn’t want them to have to deal with that.
LAURA: Those are two huge things that you’re dealing with at this point in your life, in your late 30s. Your marriage is not working out and you are also facing the age that you are at, and the fact that you had not had success having children up to that point. There are women who stay in relationships, because, well, this is how I have a child or this is how I do this, this is what I’m supposed to do. A lot of things that had to have been tugging at you at that point as you make some humongous life decisions.
JODY: Yes, I made the decision I think to end the marriage, quite quickly. Obviously, ending a marriage, even if it’s a quick decision, is a long process. So it took us a couple of years to completely split up and divide everything and it was an incredibly painful time. My ex-husband and I, we are still friends. He managed to get clean. It took him 10 years. But he managed to get clean. Things got a lot worse for him once he didn’t have me holding it all together. It’s not something to be taken lightly. I understand why people stay. I understand why people leave. And to anyone out there who is living and loving someone who is an addict. I have two words for you: Al-anon. Al-anon probably saved my sanity, I wish I’d found it when I was still married rather than after I’d split up.
LAURA: You mentioned in your book, as you’re talking about your story, how there was this unexplained infertility, as if infertility is not bad enough, to not be able to get a clear reason as to why it’s happening is the most powerless feeling you can have. And so you’re going through all of that and you say in the book that there was a part of you that thought, well, I got pregnant before so maybe it’s him. Maybe it was my husband, maybe if I am in a different relationship maybe then it will happen.
JODY: And then he got someone pregnant. He got some sort of one-night-stand pregnant, a couple of years after we’d split up. Either she chose not to keep the baby or it didn’t work out. He’s hazy on the details. I remember the moment that he told me that that’s what had happened, and literally every speck of dust floating through the air, I can still see it. That moment is frozen in time because I just knew then, it’s me. It’s always been me. Still didn’t kill my hope – somehow IVF would sort that out! I still believed it was the silver bullet. I was still very very ignorant of the likelihood of success.
JODY: At my age, at that point I was just about to turn 41, I had no idea that by that point I was already down for about 8% chance of success rate, which, let’s face it is 92% chance of failure. It is frontier science, on a global average it fails 75% of the time. There are many, many more people out there who leave IVF treatments and fertility treatments without a baby than with. There’s another group of people whose stories are silenced. They don’t fit the happily ever after/we can fix anything if you have a positive attitude/throw enough money/if you try hard enough/if you’re a good enough person, you’ll get what you want. It’s not true. And it’s a very inconvenient truth but I have to say, learning that one, you know, really sucking it up, has been the most profoundly maturing experience of my life.
LAURA: Yes, I understand that. There’s so much luck involved in so many things that happen in our lives, so much, I mean it is luck. Infertility, it doesn’t strike women who the universe just thinks you’re going to be a bad mum so we’re gonna make sure we take care of this. That’s not how this works.
JODY: Well let’s just apply some logic there – so that means everyone who does become a mother is going to be a good mum. Let’s see how that’s working out…
LAURA: Exactly. We tell ourselves though, and having gone through IVF treatments myself and having failed experiences, you go through this, any type of infertility and it is so easy to think I am failing, there’s something wrong with me. My biological purpose as a woman is that I am supposed to reproduce, that is why we were put here, so I’m failing, my body is failing me. It is so unfair what we tell ourselves. It’s so incredibly unfair and there’s no rhyme or reason, you could be 22 years old and unable to get pregnant, you could be 45 and naturally get pregnant with your own eggs. There is no telling why things happen the way they do. But as women and because of the narrative that is so overwhelming, we feel this belief that it is our fault in some way that we are not doing our job or serving our purpose.
JODY: And that ‘our fault’ narrative, particularly I think when you’re struggling with infertility treatments not working or other ways of getting pregnant not working, part of the grief process is the emotion that arises when we’re dealing with an irrevocable loss of any kind – and that can be the loss of a dream – is it’s actually easier to blame ourselves than it is to really be comfortable with our powerlessness. Because that’s much bigger and scarier. Actually, this is out of my hands. You know, I might not get what I want, it’s much easier to focus on the cup of coffee that you had that you think you shouldn’t have had, you know everyone telling you, you’ve had a miscarriage and you think I shouldn’t have got stressed about that thing, I shouldn’t have done that. Or your treatments don’t work and you just look at every decision you ever made about every relationship, every choice you ever made, you look at it through this ex post rationalisation lens of everything I did that led me up to this point, I need to question everything. It is excruciatingly painful.
LAURA: It is and I know in my situation, I met my husband later in life, we got married at 38, I met him at 35 and I kept thinking, so wait I’m getting punished because I decided not to settle, because I waited for the right person? It’s not my fault I didn’t meet him until I was 35! All of this falls into the luck category too, I mean, had we met at a different time, had we just been lucky enough, fortunate enough that it would have worked out at a different time, who knows what would have happened but all of these things are out of our control. As you just said when we find things that we can focus on that we do have control over, that’s so much easier. It’s so much easier to track that, it helps you to try to understand it, to understand something that has no explanation.
JODY: Even if it makes you feel shit, that feels more comfortable than sitting in the unknowing.
LAURA: So as you are going through the infertility and the inability to get pregnant, the thought and reminder to yourself that you did have a pregnancy that you terminated when you were 20 – how did that play into your feelings? The fact that you could not get pregnant again after having made the decision to terminate one.
JODY: It didn’t make any sense to me. To this day, I do not understand why I wasn’t able to conceive again. No one’s ever given me a decent explanation. Sometimes, even now, a little bit of new research will come out about something, and there’s just a little part of me that goes, Oh, I wonder if it was that, that unexplained thing. Even though I’m long past the part of my life where I could have tried, or even though I’m not interested now in having a baby, I’m 57, I’m through that whole part of my life and I love my life the way it is now. But I think it didn’t impact me in my grieving as much as I’ve seen some women, I don’t think I felt a level of shame around it but I have worked with women who feel really blocked, and really unable to feel that they’re allowed to grieve because of that experience, because of the shame they carry.
JODY: I was a few years into Gateway Women. I was at a cathedral service run by a British organisation called Saying Goodbye, which has these amazing non-denominational services in cathedrals across the UK, for people grieving the loss of a baby or an infant at any age, at any stage, and I was taking some Gateway Women to one of these events, women who’d had miscarriages, failed IVF treatment, early losses. I was really there to support them and take them to this event. At that time they didn’t really include childlessness in those losses but I’ve worked with the founder on that and it is a little bit more inclusive now because the unconceived get grieved as well. There was a point in the service, which was in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, when everyone was asked to come up and light a candle. Masses – there were probably about 200 people at this service – light a candle for their losses, and sort of to say a little prayer, in whatever way you wished (it was non-denominational) and I felt called to go up and light a candle for that little baby, that I had conceived. I went up and I lit a candle. And I felt him. I knew he was a boy. I knew his name was Paul, which is interesting I was in St Paul’s Cathedral, but it was also my ex boyfriend’s brother’s name, my ex boyfriend had gone on to die tragically young from a brain tumour and we were very close. And I just said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t ready to be your mother. I’m really sorry I don’t think I would have done a good job. I’m really, really sorry.” And I cried, and I watched that smoke go right up into the dome of the cathedral. And I felt peace. And I realised that I had been holding on… Not to shame over the abortion but shame over letting that soul down. I felt a lot freer after that. I think the power of ritual, which is so deep in what it means to be human. When archaeologists are looking for civilization, they date it by burial rituals, those are considered to be the way when we know that these are modern humans, when we start to see burial rituals.
JODY: Ritual is what it means to be human. And having a ritual to honour that loss, and also feel compassion for the young scared woman that I had been. It’s hugely important for me.
LAURA: That’s beautiful. And, as you said hugely important and the things that allow us to grieve and accept and be able to then move forward are different for everyone, but it is such an important process to be able to go through. You talk a lot about grief, which I think is another element of life that we do not talk about. We associate grief with you’ve lost a loved one, someone has died and that’s when you get to grieve. But this idea of being able, giving ourselves permission and having it be necessary to be able to grieve the other losses in our lives, the things that we do not have, the belief that we will be a mother and then we are not going to be, the relationships that end, all of these things that need this space of grief and how we don’t want to talk about it because, oh no, no, let’s all be positive and happy and everything is great. But the importance of being able to sit in that space of actually acknowledging what we have lost and that that is very painful is such an incredibly important part of life.
JODY: Grief is part of love. It’s part of what it is to be human, we grieve that which we are deeply attached to, which we love and that love creates the grief. Grief is actually a skill. And it’s a skill that our societies are very poor at, in Western societies.
JODY: Grief is actually the engine of change, because in order to change, in order to move forward, whether it’s a desired change or an undesired change, we have to let go of what is and what was in order to move into what’s coming. Grief is the emotion that allows that to happen. It is the emotional declutter par excellence. It cleans away what needs to be gotten rid of so that you are ready to move forward.
JODY: But in our society all we talk about is the bright shiny side of change. Why do you think there are so many books about change? Everyone wants to change something, but all change involves a side order of loss. If we don’t know how to sit with our loss, learn from our loss, process our loss, if we are not skilled in that we can’t move forward. And people think that the reason they can’t change is because they’re not good or they’re procrastinators. I’m passionate about grief because I think it is the missing piece in so many of our societies and I think it is holding us back. Being able to sit in the not knowing, because there is a point in the grief process when you are letting go, but you don’t actually know what comes next. There is a moment of faith in the process that is terrifying. When you just have to trust that somehow you’re going to get to the other side of this dark water you’re swimming in. But you don’t even know what the land looks like on the other side. But you know you can’t hold on to where you are any longer. It requires enormous courage and I’m so passionate about grief because it has enriched my life and it has changed my life and it has showed me how there’s so much in the darkness. There’s so much wisdom in the darkness, there’s no light without darkness. And I’ve been witness to so many profound transformations.
JODY: Now that I’m going through the next big transformation of life, I’m postmenopausal, I’m moving into my #ApprenticeCrone years as I call them, there’s another grieving process which is letting go of youth, letting go of middle age, letting go of all of those possibilities and embracing kind of like the afternoon of life. Once again I think without my apprenticeship in grief, I think I’d be finding a lot of things a lot harder.
LAURA: So how did you come to that realisation and that acceptance of allowing yourself to say, this is not going to happen. I am not going to be a mother. Because coming to what you said you had hoped for so long, and I think we love to talk about hope, we love to talk about how empowering and uplifting hope is. If you then say, okay well no, actually now it’s not going to happen, people could be like well, but you’re just not being hopeful enough anymore, like this is all up to you. How did that decision and realisation, really come for you?
JODY: Unwillingly. Kicking and screaming into it really. It was just a few days after my second post-divorce relationship had broken up and I was in this really grotty studio flat, that’s what real estate people will call it now, we used to call them bedsits. All my life in boxes around me and just realising that thing, I need to be with someone for at least a year, my age, and just a deep realisation in my belly of ‘It’s over’. In that moment something extraordinary happened, which is I had this feeling that these two parts of me that had been coexisting for a long time, the part of me that was definitely going to be a mother and that took every decision through that lens: I mustn’t be with this guy because of this, I need to work with this company because of that, I can’t do this advanced degree at this point because then I’d be doing that when we would be wanting… I call it kind of psychological nesting. I think it’s something that all women who want to be mothers understand, you’re kind of preparing the path for this family that is definitely on its way. And then there was another part of me, the other sort of line of me, which was the life I was actually living, and was malnourished and had no hopes in it, and no faith and no joy in it. I was just going through the motions because the real life was the life in my fantasy of becoming a mother, I was not putting any energy into the life I was actually living. And these two lives, came back together in that moment.
JODY: And I felt a kind of a real physical feeling of literally like these two energetic paths just coming back together, there was a jolt in my body. I was like ‘Whoa, that’s weird!’ I went to the kitchen and I made myself a cup of tea. I’m standing there and the window of this apartment used to look over a children’s playground, it was school time and the bells were ringing and the kids were shouting, I don’t know I think childless women always end up living next to the playground as some kind of karma! And then I just thought well, when I was 20, and I used to look ahead 30 years to when I was 50, if I ever lived that long and I’d ever be that old –
LAURA: Seems impossible when you’re 20!
JODY: I thought, well, at that point I thought I could do anything with my life that I wanted, if I applied myself. I had the vanity the egotism and the lack of experience of youth to think it was all up to me, so forgive me that. And then I thought well why can’t the years from 45 to 75 be like that. And I thought, when was the last time I had a thought like that? When was the last time I had an idea that I could actually take some kind of agency and ownership of my life again? And I would love to say that that was it. Job done. I galloped off and had this amazing realisation, but this is not a Hollywood script, this is life. And the next day I fell into a pit of grief. I didn’t know it was grief, no one knew it was grief. Therapists, doctors didn’t know it was grief. Friends didn’t know it was grief. Dr Google didn’t know it was grief. And there were no books, I could find about childlessness.
JODY: So I was in a really deep hole that nothing seemed to help. But I think having had that thought, even just for a few minutes, which I think was my higher self, just letting me know: ‘somehow’. I had two really terrible years searching for help. I was in deep despair. And I look young for my age I always have done. When I was a kid my mom said I would appreciate it one day! But that did mean that people would look at me and say, ‘But you’ve still got time. Why don’t you adopt? Why don’t you have one on your own?’ It’s like not factoring in the structural stuff that’s going on around me: single, broke, self-employed, no home of my own, no partner, no savings, just not possible. Even if it’s emotionally possible it’s not structurally possible. But these kind of throwaway bingos which stop you being able to talk about your experience, that shame you back into silence. And then I was in my first year of my psychotherapy training, and I had wanted to be psychotherapist for a long time, even back when I was married, but I thought I should wait until I was a parent so that I understood the human condition –
LAURA: Of course, because that’s the only way!
JODY: The prejudices were in me too. Then at that point, at 45, I thought you know what? Me and the human condition, I think we’re quite well acquainted at this point!
JODY: I was in my second year, we were doing training on bereavement and we were learning about grief models, particularly the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief model. And I really was understanding it. I went home that evening, from my training I wrote down what I’ve learned and I mapped it against my experience of childlessness, and I was like, oh my goodness, I’m grieving. That was the first moment. And that was the moment I kind of date my recovery beginning from because I knew two things at that point. Number one I wasn’t going crazy. Because the internal cognitive world of grief is a very very wonky one. I thought also maybe this is just middle age, maybe I’m just destined to be this not really very together, highly anxious, miserable person, maybe this is the new me. And then I also knew, it’s a process.
JODY: So, although I didn’t understand how, I knew that one day I was going to come out the other side of this. And that gave me something very important. It gave me a new kind of hope. Because human beings do need hope. And we give it up very very reluctantly, but unfortunately the first stage of grief is coming out of denial, and that means letting go of that last bit of hope, and it hurts like hell. Don’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to feel it, puts it off as long as possible. Denial is very important. Some of us need to stay in it until we have the support around us, and the support within us to process the loss.
LAURA: It’s so important to be talking about it in the way that you are describing this, in the way you are explaining it as a process. You said you came to that realisation when you felt like the two parts of you came together, it was a jolt, it was like, oh, okay, well I have this realisation now, I see how things are potentially going to be going now with the rest of my life, but you didn’t wake up the next morning and now suddenly rainbows, butterflies, and now you’re cured! You’re cured of being concerned about never being a mother. I feel like there are so many things in our lives that we go through, especially when it’s something that we want so badly that does not happen, and then we tell ourselves, even though we have wanted this so badly and there’s so much love involved in the idea of this thing, that when it doesn’t happen we’re then just supposed to get over it. We’re never supposed to have setbacks either once you do start doing the work and you start going along this path, that any step backward is a failure. There’s just no linear way to be dealing with something and when you say grief is a form of love, we don’t just let those things go, we can’t – we’re humans.
JODY: We hang on to them like hell. Grief is an emotion. It’s a process, it’s organic, it’s not linear. Kubler-Ross, when she named her five stages of grief, she kind of wants to backtrack on it because people started to see it as a checklist. And she said, No, it doesn’t mean that people go through all of them, or they go through them in that order, or that they’re done. It’s almost like her life’s work was trivialised down to these five points. I see, and she saw it, I see grief is actually much more like a spiral, than it is a line. I may have to update my reference but for those of you who were kids in the 70s there used to be these things called slinky toys.
LAURA: I had a slinky!
JODY: Long piece of metal made into a spiral coil that used to kind of walk down the stairs. The fact is that any point of it can be in contact with any other point. But it is actually if you stretch it out, it is a straight line. But it can be very, very complicated, in grieving what I’ve seen and what I’m noticing now after many years of working with the grief of my childlessness – and really childlessness is no longer painful for me, it’s a description of the fact that I don’t have children, it is no longer my identity – is that I circle back through things. Something will happen which will be a new aspect of my loss. Most of my friends, their children are young adults now. And so I think my invisible children have grown up with me. So now I’m fine around young children, but I do find a poignancy about the contact between young adults and their parents because my children would be in their 20s. You see something happen, and you go, Oh, I’m not going to get that either. My ex-husband’s one of six I’m still very close to the whole family. My nieces are having children. And that’s a lovely experience because I’m very close to some of them so I have kind of great-nieces, and yesterday a great-nephew born.
JODY: But I’m never going to have that experience of my line continuing. The thing about involuntary childlessness is that it impacts you right across the life course. Just as motherhood does. People think somehow that that women who are childless, that it’s all about not having a baby. And ‘Really, aren’t you over that yet?’ But it’s so deeply entwined with our idea of feminine identity, and the many roles that women are allowed to play across their lifetime. It’s a living, lifelong loss, which is why it’s so important to become skilled at grieving. Because when I feel grief, I mean it used to be like being kicked in the chest by a horse, now it’s more like a cocktail stick to the heart. It’s a sharp pang, I know what it is, and I recognise that some new aspect of my loss has been revealed to me.
JODY: And what I do now is I breathe it in. I literally, consciously breathe in the grief into my heart area. And I imagine it passing through my heart area healing that part of my heart that’s just been touched, and then passing out the back of my heart. That’s really important. And as it’s passing through, I say thank you. Thank you for healing another piece of my heart. And it passes through me, and it can be remarkably quick but it’s that a lot of the skill of working with grief is learning to kind of lean into the wind. But also to know when you don’t feel like leaning into the wind and take really good care of yourself, because sometimes it’s just too much, you need a break. You need a box set. We don’t have to be warriors. But just like love can be incredibly painful and overwhelming so can grief and it’s about really learning the skill of taking care of ourselves in the storm of these very powerful human experiences and seeking the support and the guidance of others who can hold our hands and go, ‘I’ve been there.’
LAURA: So how did you come to the decision that you are processing all of this for yourself, you’re realising what you are going through, and then to say, this is something I need to be able to talk about. I need to be able to help other women. I need to be able to provide a space, because I know I can’t be the only one who’s feeling this way.
JODY: It was a complete accident. I was trying to talk about my experience to my friends, to anyone who would listen to me and nobody would. Nobody would listen. Everyone just shut me down with bingos about adoption. ‘It’s not that bad have one of mine. Kids aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, aren’t you over that yet, don’t you think you’re making a bit of a drama about this?’ Whatever it might be. I realised that nobody wanted to hear about it.
JODY: I had a younger friend who I’m very close to, several years younger than me. I said ‘I think I’m just starting to get my head around this and work out how I can be okay with this.’ And she said, ‘I don’t want you to be okay with it. It’s not okay with me if you get okay with it, because what does that show me?’ She was still really hopeful of motherhood in her future which has come to pass. But like many women I know and you know, she was single not by choice. And time was ticking on. And I thought well even she doesn’t want to be on this part of the journey with me because me coming to terms with my childlessness was kind of threatening to her. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I get it now.
JODY: I’m a writer. I’d been blogging for a few years, this was in the old days when people used to write personal things called web blogs, you know about films I’d seen, books I’d read. I had about four readers, all of whom I knew, and after a couple of years they said ‘You know Jody, when we read it, we can hear you speaking.’ And I thought, Oh, I think that’s quite good. I think that might be what they call finding your voice. So I thought, you know what, I’m going to start a blog about this, I’m just going to start writing about it. And so I sent out my first blog into the void, typing into the void. I got my first piece of PR, after that first blog was published. I had women from all over the world commenting on it saying how can you know the exact words that are in my head. I thought I was the only person feeling this. I had my real name on it. My real photograph on it. I was not ashamed of my childlessness. I didn’t realise how groundbreaking that was.
JODY: I was not hiding behind anything anonymous, I was going this is my story, this is what I’m feeling, and the world went, ‘Thank you.’ So gradually I get ‘Please can you give a talk?’ And I’m like, me? You do realise I’m actually still in the middle of this, I don’t have any answers, I’m a complete basket case. And they’re like, but you seem to have a way of talking about it that no one else does. So I gave my first talk and then women saying ‘Could you do something, like bring us together?’ And I’m like, what me? I can’t… And I thought well I have a lot of experience in 12 Step groups, had a lot of healing in Al-Anon which really showed me the power of peer-to-peer healing, and I thought, okay, I don’t need to be healed. I don’t need to be an expert. I know how to lead groups, I’d led quite a few 12 Step groups. I was quite good at leading groups within my psychotherapy training and I thought, I know how to do that. What I need to do is I need to bring women together in a safe and confidential space with a structure and boundaries, and see if that kind of healing can happen. I don’t need to have the answers yet, but I do know how to create the space.
JODY: And that’s what I did, I ran my first Gateway Women group, and I ran that group three times, it’s like a 10 week group, the material from that turned into my first weekend workshop called the Reignite Weekend which is still running all over the world. 1000s and 1000s of women have done that transformational weekend which is about processing your grief, and then helping you to have a new idea for your life moving forward. So it’s about processing the past, moving into the present, and daring to dream that you might have a new future again. It’s an amazing weekend. I wrote my book, Living the Life Unexpected, because there wasn’t a book out there. I wrote the book that I needed to read. Every time I thought, along the journey, it’s been a decade now, I feel someone really ought to do – insert thing here – and it’s me again. The universe chose me for this job. And I just kept showing up, doing the work.
LAURA: I think it is so impactful when you talk about when people first were really responding to what you were saying and wanted to hear more and you’re thinking ‘But I don’t have all the answers, I’m a basket case, I’m still trying to figure this out!’ There is something very impactful in hearing that part of it. When you just talk to somebody who’s like, ‘Oh yep I’ve been there, but here’s everything that I did to get out, here are the steps and this is what you need to do.’ It loses some of its power, because there isn’t this stuff that you get to when everything is great and you followed all of this path and now you’re totally cool –
JODY: I thought you have the answer for that!
LAURA: I know I’m so sorry I’ve led you so astray! Oh my god, how much frickin’ easier would life be, if that was the way it worked?! But there is something so powerful in being able to sit with someone who says, Yes, I know what you’re feeling, I understand it, I’m still trying to figure it out too, but you’re not alone. And the power in just knowing you aren’t alone is huge.
JODY: Absolutely massive. Walking into a room full of women who are doing the Gateway Women workshop or at an event and looking around knowing that so many of us have lost the feeling of safety in a group of women, and you just see them start to realise, like on the weekend workshop, that no one there is going to be pregnant. That no one’s going to be talking to them about how amazing the experience of motherhood is or asking them prurient questions about their own experience, you know, ‘Why didn’t you find a partner? And if you didn’t find a partner, why didn’t you do it on your own?’ And all of these things like they were kind of a laundry list, which is so deeply, deeply disrespectful to the complexity of women’s lives. I know a lot of your audience is single. There is so much prurience and shaming around that as well.
JODY: I’m not in that space anymore of not really knowing what to do about coming to terms with my childlessness, but I’m on the next bit of the journey. What I’ve always done is – I don’t have the answers, I’m not some kind of guru who really knows what’s going on – but what I’m doing is I’m living my unexpected life, making sense of it the best I can as I go along. Then what I learn, I’m shining it to those who come behind me; I’m shining a torch in the dark, but I don’t know what the heck I’m doing! And now that I’m becoming an older woman without children, I’m looking for mentors and role models to help me process that, to help me understand. I run these events called Fireside Wisdom with childless elderwomen where I bring a group of older childless women together. There’s another one coming up soon, as proper witchy women we do them on solstices and equinoxes because I’m embracing the witch archetype. If someone says you’re a witch, I’m going, powerful and magical – okay! A wise woman with great knowledge and powerful and feared. I think I can embrace that!
LAURA: That works!
JODY: I’ve carried on with Gateway Women, even though in many ways I don’t need it anymore, because that’s part of my work as a good ancestor, because I may be childless, but I can still be a good ancestor. And I want to plant a tree that future generations of childless women can shelter under. The women who could have been our daughters. I don’t want there to be noting for them when they’re going through this; so I go on.
LAURA: Yes, and thank goodness that you do. The people who have already found you, the people who have yet to find you, this voice is such an important one that they need to be able to hear, to feel less alone in what it is that they are experiencing. One thing that I do want to touch on before you go, because you’ve mentioned this idea of there’s so much involved with not having a child. One of them is the social and friend factor and this idea of the ‘friendship apocalypse.’ When you don’t have children suddenly some doors are closed to you, what social circles you can run in, and how difficult that part of it is,
JODY: It is excruciating. I think for me, I held on to the idea of motherhood for a long time, my ex-husband and I were amongst the first in our social group to get married. So everyone else was having kids, and I always thought that their children would be my children’s playmates one day. So I kind of kept up with them all. But when I knew I definitely wasn’t going to be having kids, when I had that realization, it became too painful to continue with that fantasy in my mind.
JODY: And I also looked around my friendships and saw how one-sided they were, how I was the one doing all the emotional labour in 95% of them to kind of keep them going. And I thought, I can’t do that anymore and I won’t do that anymore. I stepped back from putting that level of work in, sort of as an experiment, but I think at some level, knowing what that experiment would show. And really, for most of my friendships, what happened was I heard nothing from these people. I completely disappeared off their radar. It wasn’t malicious. I just ceased to exist for them. It was incredibly painful.
JODY: I had no idea that this was such a common experience because, once again, no one was writing or talking about this, but as soon as I started talking about it, everyone went, oh my goodness, it’s not just me. And it’s very, very common. It feels like it’s something I’m being called to speak to more and more, because really this is about a very important skill, which is, how do we speak across difference? How do we understand different lives, how do we make space for that? And one of the difficulties in the experience between mothers, and particularly those who are childless not by choice rather than those who are childfree (who have a different experience and equally valid, but different experience), is that the childless person is pressed up against the window of the life that they longed for. And often that is not acknowledged, it becomes the baby elephant in the room. If we cannot talk in friendships, particularly female friendships which are intensely emotionally honest, if that becomes this big thing we can’t talk about, and we start performing the friendship as if dancing around this dark thing we’re not talking about, the friendship loses its currency, it becomes very performative. And often this just leads to people ghosting each other.
JODY: And one of the really painful things I think, if you’re also single and childless, is there can be this fantasy from your friends who became mothers that you’re still the same person you were when you were all in your 20s, and that you’ve got all these other friends that you’re hanging out with, that you’re going to clubs with, you’re going to bars with, you’re doing whatever. It’s like I’m 40, I don’t do those things anymore! Things that used to be a punishment – an early night and a nap and a hot bath – these are delightful now! But there is this fantasy that we’re somehow immature if we don’t have children, that we don’t understand.
JODY: There are so many hurdles to be crossed. What really needs to happen are some honest conversations, but they are also courageous conversations. We need to equip ourselves, and our friends who are mothers also need to have a chance to be equipped to have these difficult conversations with their friends who are childless, to speak across that difference, to make mistakes, to learn about each other. And friendship can go on a pause for a while whilst the childless woman is grieving, there were many people I couldn’t see for several years. Once I was getting my well filled by being around other childless women who understood me, once I got my understanding and belonging tank topped up, it also meant it was a lot easier to be around people who are very important to me, but who just didn’t get what it was like to be childless, who were just a little bit clueless about it… Lovely people in many ways, but really a bit tone-deaf about this. It made it a lot easier to be around them. As long as they weren’t the only people I was trying to hang out with.
LAURA: You’ve mentioned in your book a term that was coined by someone else, this idea of ‘melanjoy,’ that you’re happy for the people who have the children and the things that you want, but you can also at the same time be very sad and grieving for yourself.
JODY: This idea that we only get one emotion at a time – I don’t know anyone who only gets one emotion at a time!
LAURA: Again, that’s another thing that would make life a lot simpler! You have to do what is best for yourself and what you need. We have ideas about how we’re supposed to handle all sorts of relationships, romantic relations to friendships and how these things are supposed to go, but again there is no one way. These conversations that you talked about with people who have children are so important to help on a broader scale normalise that that’s not the only way to go, to normalise other female experiences in life.
JODY: Being a mum and caretaking are very important, but they are not the only way to be a woman, they are not the only feminine experience. They’ve become valorized and weaponized I think in the last 20 years as a backlash against the Women’s Liberation Movement. It’s become a really, really big deal. Then you add pronatalism and capitalism, motherhood has been commercialised.
LAURA: So much.
JODY: So there’s a lot going on there against us, nobody wants to commercialize childlessness; my email’s on the website, come and get me! No one’s interested. No one starts an ad campaign with ‘As a childless woman, I …’ Our identity is stigmatized and discounted, but we are a quarter of women.
LAURA: That’s a lot.
JODY: The first political party that wakes up to this is going be a slam dunk through the polls. It’s not all about working mums. No, there’s an awful lot of us out there who aren’t working mums, and this is nothing against working mums –
LAURA: Not at all.
JODY: No – I wanted to be one. But there are more stories than that single story of womanhood.
LAURA: I’m so grateful for you to share yours with us today and to share yours in the way that you are on a daily basis. It means so much to me to be able to hear everything that you have said today, I know it means so much to so many people who are listening, as well. I also know people are going to want to connect with you if they have not already, so what are the best ways to find you, to perhaps even be able to work with you and learn from you?
JODY: Oh, you’re so sweet. My book is Living the Life Unexpected by Jody Day, which you can find in all good book shops and online. My website is gateway-women.com and you can find me on Instagram and Twitter @gatewaywomen, and I’d love to hear from you. Thank you so much.
LAURA: Thank you, Jody. This has been, I think, one of the most important conversations that we have had, because it is just not talked about enough, so thank you very much for being here. Thank you for your vulnerability and I just can’t say how much I appreciate it.
JODY: Thank you, Laura, it’s been a really powerful conversation for me too. Thank you for inviting me.
I also have a male friend who told me that I should just tell people why I don’t have children as if I owe anyone an explanation. Apparently he thinks that some people may not be so judgmental if they knew the reasons. I don’t feel the same and that is NOT my experience. Interestingly he demonstrates far more empathy than any women that I’ve ever met. First of all I don’t feel it is anyone’s business nor do I owe anyone an explanation PERIOD and they are not “entitled” to know. Likewise I don’t feel compelled to excavate my soul for their amusement. Why would I feel emotionally safe. I also feel that maybe these intrusive types of people should try to become a better person and not judge PERIOD. My personal information is mine and mine alone. It has nothing to do with them. The only emotionally safe place that I found where I could talk openly was with a therapist. Most people I’ve learned personalize every thing that you say and do and make it all about them and due to that why would they ever earn my trust. It’s non-productive. The comments are always usually dismissive as well. The most recent experience I had with a therapist who inquired about children– my response was immediate and I shut her down. It was a knee-jerk self-protective action because I was there for another more immediate and pressing issue. She did persist and then asked if I heard a lot of “complaining”. I don’t recall what lead up to it, but I responded, “BINGO” not realizing how that term is used in the childfree/childless community.
You touch on a lot of good material here and it tends to trigger me. I’m glad that you are so open about it. I am reluctant because of my harsh experiences to be so open. My therapist did say that NO ONE should be criticizing me in any way, shape or form. Of course they feel entitled too regardless by the simple fact that I don’t have children when they know absolutely nothing about my experiences.
A lot of women lead lives that they didn’t expect. When I first researched the topic of not having children–about 15 years ago I found research by a female professor, but my efforts didn’t yield much in the way of results. I also had no idea that there were distinctions made between being “childfree” and “childless”. I understand the reason for it, but I also felt that there were overlapping and common issues. With that said I recall reading an article on the Psychology Today site by Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D. called: 6 Myths About People Who Don’t Have Kids: Selfish? Lonely? Unfulfilled? A new book examines the evidence. Sure enough when I perused the comment section someone wrote that people without children should be “SHUNNED” as well as other meanspirited judgments. That seems a common sentiment as well as ugly judgmental comments. Unfortunately the site has taken off the comments section, but I must say that I was glad to see the “childfree” speaking out about their experiences and against those sweeping attacks and generalizations. No one walks in my shoes, but that doesn’t stop the obnoxious questions and judgments when it is no one’s business. It’s also a loaded question and I don’t feel that the motivation comes from a place of empathy or goodwill. My experiences have demonstrated otherwise, especially in the workplace. I don’t feel that the question is innocent because what follows is manipulation, exploitation and incessant complaining and thoughtless unsolicited advice. I do not experience people as caring or understanding. In fact just the opposite.
I know it’s a tragic comment to make, but I can’t think of any women who have children that have had a positive impact on me. Most seem content to wallow in self-pity and their incessant complaining in their attempts to try to exploit sympathy through their status as a victim. It contributed heavily to my feelings of ambivalence. If anything it made me not want to be anything like them. I wish that were not the case, yet those types seem to be the most vocal.
I wonder if you could address the “crazy” element of childlessness shaming.
“If you don’t have children then you must be a bad person. And you must be trying to steal someone else’s baby.”
You can barely turn on the tv on weekday afternoons without there being a movie about a crazy stealing a baby or young child from its sweet kind mother.