When I think back to my days of wanting/trying to become a mother and then wanting/trying to recover from that and build a new kind of life that did not include motherhood, one of the things that eventually stopped me from discussing my situation with anyone – was advice. (For me, the fact that the last four-letter spell V.I.C.E seems very apt!) In my training to become a psychotherapist, one of the earliest things we learned (and it’s not an easy habit to break!) is to stop giving advice, either asked for or not, but instead to support our clients to develop and trust their own wisdom, their own process. To companion others in their process rather than to direct them.
In my 2017 TEDx talk ‘The Lost Tribe of Childless Women’ I explained about ‘bingos’, those automatic knee-jerk statements that people make in response to our situation, including some of the following gems:
- But anyone can have a baby now! Have you tried IVF? Egg donation? Surrogacy? Womb transplants? Prayer? Just ‘relaxing’? (No, I’ve never heard of any of these things, I’ve been living under a rock counting my cash…)
- But why don’t you just have one on your own? Sperm donation is so easy now! (#1: I know plenty of women who are childless despite having tried to become solo-mothers and, #2: This a life-altering decision for everyone involved, there’s nothing ‘easy’ about it…)
- Why didn’t you just adopt? (Probably the same reasons you didn’t…)
- I guess you didn’t really want them or you would have tried harder… (Deep breath people – this one has even been said by therapists…)
- It’s God’s will; you just weren’t meant to be a mother. (And it was obviously God’s will too that you’d be missing the empathy gene; I’m so thrilled for your kids.)
- Oh, but you’re so lucky you don’t have kids! (Living through a tsunami of grief and broken dreams whilst watching everyone else live the life that I always thought would be mine. Hey everyone, look at me with all my shiny, shiny ‘luck’ – you want some?!)
- And many more gems I could share, but you get the picture and no doubt you’ve got your ‘favourites’ too – do share them with me in the comments…
And the weird thing is that here we are again, in the grip of a civilization-altering pandemic and it seems an awful lot of people are avoiding their own (and others) pain and grief by turning into relentless online advice-givers.
Whether it’s a flashmob of You-Tubers and online-course creators wanting us to get all ‘productive’ during this time by mastering yoga moves or learning to ferment our own Kombucha – or their well-meaning antidote, the keyboard jockey meme-makers flooding Instagram with their gracious permission for us to ‘not be productive’ (I confess I was one of those, sorry!) And then there is the scheduling brigade, advising us how many minutes a day we should be devoting to staying fit, keeping positive, breathing, writing gratitude lists and managing our anxiety levels. Or whatever…
It’s exhausting and I’m feeling oppressed by all the advice of ‘the right way’ to cope with a pandemic. I’m finding that it’s drowning out my own experience, just like it did with my childlessness. And it’s starting to piss me off. Again.
I am incredibly fortunate that my daily life has not (yet) been hugely impacted by Coronavirus, even though we are in ‘lockdown’ in Ireland, as so many of us are around the world. I work for myself from home, running a mostly online organisation, so no big change there (and it hasn’t got any quieter). My partner is retired and so being together 24/7 isn’t a strain. And my partner’s mother (in her late eighties), with whom we share a home, only used to go out a couple of times a week before this anyway. So, apart from missing our daily doggy beach-walks in the delicious Spring sunshine (after a long and rainy Irish winter), being able to enjoy the gentle pleasures of small-town West Cork life (including some great little cafes to nurture new friendships in) and not being able to travel for work or pleasure, we haven’t had to make any huge sacrifices.
Things are much the same, and yet everything is different; we have stepped through the looking glass. And I know these feelings well, it reminds so much of crossing that line all those years ago from ‘one day I will be a mother’ to ‘I’m childless forever’. And how the world around me kept turning and never understood that for me, nothing would ever be the same again.
My work, as you know because you’re reading this, is about connection and community and yet sometimes it’s hard not to feel more isolated than ever right now, when it seems that almost all the mainstream and social media coming towards us is about families and parents dealing with having their kids at home. No mention of the millions of us who don’t have that to complain about and would love a taste of those problems (and who are caricatured as luxurious, clueless layabouts). Or of those of us who are single-not-by-choice and already way-too-familiar with social isolation. No mention of those us with chronic illnesses or disabilities that mean we already know what life under ‘quarantine’ feels like. No mention of the elders amongst us without children to worry about how they’re faring. We are one in five women in the developed world (90% of us childless not by choice) and our invisibility to the mainstream still has the power to astonish me.
I’d love to write some pithy article about the surge in pronatalism we’re seeing right now (and other ugly prejudices too like sexism, ableism, racism, ageism…) but I can’t, not just yet. I’m grieving the world I lived in until yesterday and my ‘big picture’ hat is currently offline. And as for those articles rushing to optimistically predict how this pandemic is going to reshape our societies for the better, they remind me of those many childless women over the years who’ve approached me for tips on how to get to their ‘Plan Bs’ without going through any of this ‘messy, self-indulgent grieving’ stuff.
And here’s my tip: there are no short cuts in grief, only detours. Grief is patient and wise and it’ll be waiting for you ahead, when you’re ready to sit quietly with it and let it heal your broken heart and teach you how to live in a world you didn’t choose.
And if you’re not ready for that yet, that’s fine too. We each have our own timing.
Grief is a harsh teacher, slicing away your illusions with a blade (which is not something anyone’s about to put on an Instagram meme) but it hopefully also equips you with some bullshit-free wisdom about yourself (and quite often about others too – also not easy). Making friends with your own grief doesn’t always make you the perkiest company (although the dark humour can be a bonus), but I know who I’d like in my end-of-the-world bunker, and it’s not someone determined to use this time to tone their abs.
For some time, I’ve wondered if a decade of making friends with my own grief, and that of the many thousands of childless women I’ve worked with personally or online, would stand me in good stead the next time grief came to visit? Whether I’d have developed some resilience for uncertainty or whether I’d be a beginner, again… Both turn out to be true.
First of all, I know that this is grief. Some days I feel pretty much as I usually do, able to concentrate, able to work and be there for others. Able to put in my couple of hours of writing time on my novel each morning, eat my greens, do some online yoga, change the bedsheets, play with the dog and feel gratitude for the extraordinary good fortune and privilege I have to be healthy, safe, warm, fed, resourced and companioned. And on other days I feel resentful, restless, anxious, unfocused and, if I drop down into my feelings, sad and scared.
Some days I’m dealing pretty competently with the here and now and planning for the future in both my personal and professional life. Other days I’m wondering if chocolate is a food group and whether opening and shutting the fridge counts as exercise.
The difference to when I was grieving my childlessness is that I now know this is normal in grief. My psyche and physiology are catching up with this new reality where nothing is the same anymore; where there’s no way to predict what kind of future is coming and which has left my puny human obsession with control laughably exposed. Why the heck do I need to know how to ferment my own vegetables when I don’t know if I’m going to live to see the other side of this, and if I do, who will still be there with me?
So, I’m allowing myself to feel all the feels. To accept that right now I can’t read any demanding fiction (I couldn’t read fiction at all when I was grieving my childlessness) and that ‘light’ fiction is wonderful too. That getting through the day, getting most of my work done, eating reasonably healthily and managing to work a little bit on my novel too is more than enough. I don’t need to learn to code, meditate, stand on my head or read improving literature.
I’m grieving. It’s work. And it’s work that the world calls me to do. Because you can’t deal with what you can’t (or won’t) feel. And I have a big feeling (as I said also said in my TEDx talk) that society will need as many of us who’ve done our grief work as possible to support society through the changes coming down the line – I just didn’t realise it would be so soon. This pandemic will be a before and after moment for our civilization and I have a feeling that those of us who’ve survived one personal end-of-the-world scenario already might have some mad skills to share.
Grief is your friend; it’s here to get you to the other side of this, whatever that turns out to be.
So, to all my sisters (and brothers) reading this in your pyjamas, or zoning out at your home office ‘desk’, or scrolling through this on your phone to block out the scariness of travelling to your ‘essential’ workplace, or whilst worrying about yourself, others, your livelihood, your future: I see you.
I have no advice for you, no wisdom to impart. I trust you have your own.
And so I’ll leave you with a picture of darling Parsnip, dreaming of beach walks again. I tend to share my photos of her over on Instagram @gatewaywomen, so if you’d like more of that kind of things, I’ll see you there. I hope.