Oppressed by advice… all over again!

The familiarity of pandemic uncertainty when you're childless

Dear Internet

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.

13 Comments on Oppressed by advice… all over again!

  1. I can’t seem to get over not having a family. I picture 3 beautiful children all of us happy. Grandkids, a future full. Not alone children all around me. I could of had that but I was to afraid I’d mess up my relationship with my husband. No matter which way I turned it was wrong. If I did, if I didn’t, fear, anxiety. God help my brain and my thoughts. I should of just had three children and then whatever happened at least I did my part. Unforgiveness for myself, always. I haven’t written in quite a while and I was hoping to be over this by now but not true. I am grateful you haven’t given up on me, so thank you for sending me your emails! Thank you Jody, and all of you!

  2. This post has been a welcome breath of fresh air. I really haven’t known what to make of Covid or the social and media response to it. I can relate to alot of what you say. With the family Easter gathering cancelled (always a challenging event for the only one without children) a video got sent to us all about how to make the most of being home. It could only have written by the privelidged. The assumption that we all have homes and they are safe, families to enjoy spending the time with, children who will study this at school excludes many. And the video completely overlooked the fact that this is a global crisis, lives are being lost, livelihoods are being lost, others are working unbelievably hard to fight this, for many this is not an opportunity to self improve and enjoy the time. Your post was much more realistic. We don’t know what normal will look like when this has passed or who or what will remain. It’s ok to be scared. I did have a chuckle at the uterus transplant in your bingos. Variations of pretty much all of them have been said to me, except for the uterus transplant. No-one has said that to me, but honestly I don’t think I would have been surprised if they had given all the other “advice “. Lovely picture of Parsnip. Xx

  3. Thank you for this wisdom (not advice), Jody. And I love the picture of Parsnip – what beautiful ears s/he has! :- ) Sarah

  4. My experience in being single-not-by-choice for more than 7 years and childless-not-by-choice for more than 35 years was already so usual to me that I didn’t mind being the outcast of the family and the “wierd woman” in society. I was used to have a phone never ringing and nobody showing up in my house when I am ill, already many years before the pandemic hysteria. I am pretty resilient.I simply had to learn to be. — But 3 days ago, my best friend, my old beloved dog passed away. And for losing the deepest bonding I ever had, now I grief deeper than ever. And now I realise that I am definitely alone. Thank you for your article touching my soul !!! I have lost any patience with all that family-kids-isolation-callyourparents-toiletpapter-bullshit, too. I am here on this planet, I am enough and I will raise my voice now! And I give a sh*** on behaving polite and meek. Period.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your special friend. I can only imagine how much it must be hurting. I lost my little dog six years ago and it was the biggest loss I’ve ever lived through, far worse than losing my mother, and that nearly killed me. Thinking of you and sending warmth.

  5. I’m here, retired, still keeping my licensure, after 49 years of being a registered nurse. I married in year 1974; nothing fancy, we eloped to a courthouse in Newport, RI, dealt with not having children in the early 1980s. There was really not much around at the time regarding fertilization. I’ve done the “deck-deal” with “when are you having children?” to “why don’t you have kids?”, until I reached the glorious years of menopause! So here I sit, with 3 degrees post high school, have done much in my years, and do not measure them by babies or children. I’ve worked pediatrics, and my nursing friends actually think it’s a riot, for some reason (maybe they think I don’t like kids??!!). You will get through this: I’ve done many, many things in my Life that I could not do with children, and you know what? I’m not done yet at 70+ years old!

  6. Hi Jody,
    It’s Angela in Canada.

    Thank you for this post. I love the photo of Parsnip and what a wonderful name!

    I’m about three years past the abrupt end to my motherhood dream and I seem to be in a similar place to you. For the most part, my life hasn’t changed too much with this pandemic, other than my work has gone quiet. I’m self employed and work from home as well. The Spring is often fairly slow so the slow time is welcome (for a bit) after working pretty much straight, including weekends, since last June. My husband works in manufacturing and makes an essential product that is needed worldwide so he’s still working…hence our income hasn’t decreased much….yet. Like you, we are lucky ones from that point of view.

    With so many people we know freaking out about taking time off work to look after their kids, I’ve found myself surprisingly grateful (for probably the first time since our dream ended) that we don’t have that “problem”, though I’m still incredibly sensitive to any photos, discussions or posts about parenthood. I feel so much empathy towards those still in the midst of their grief…it is HORRIBLE but thankfully I came across your blog (after buying one of your books) and it has really helped. I hope others know they are not alone in this too.

    We’re in the middle of a major renovation on our house…erasing any trace of how it looked when we were approved for adoption or working with the fertility clinic. We are turning it into an amazing home for a couple, including a romantic sunroom out back that will be perfect to watch sunsets from with a glass of wine! We live right beside an area with around 40-odd wineries…such a beautiful area to live in.

    I try not to give out too much advice either but I know depression well! My only two pieces of advice for those suffering from depression is to not listen to anyone making light of it or dismissing it and to KEEP BUSY. Do whatever, just keep busy. Hobbies, going for a walk (if allowed right now), work, or whatever “used to” make you happy. For us, we are keeping busy with the huge amount of renovations still to finish. And try not to listen or read too much in the way of news…this virus is very scary and we don’t need media to scare us even more.

    Right now feels very much like we are all in the twilight zone. So strange and it’s everywhere in the world! I believe we have to all do our part to help keep others safe though…follow whatever your local health officials are advising. To you and you loved ones, Jody, and anyone else who reads this, huge virtual hug! Let’s hope all of us and those we care about make it through this and stay healthy. And that our favourite restaurants and businesses also survive.

  7. Thank you for seeing me Jody. The truth about loss shines through your wise words. I’m getting accustomed to feeling the feels. Doing that with the hand of friendship extended makes it so much better. Parsnip will be the reason I join Instagram x

  8. Wow, have people really asked about how to get to Plan B without grieving? Does that exist as a thing that can be done? I feel very sad a lot of the time at present, don’t bother trying to stop it. I’d drive myself into a worse state trying.

  9. Well, I can partially relate, empathise and have experienced some of the comments that you’ve mentioned in your article. You’re right about the advice mania that seems to sweep our channels when a human disaster occurs. For example, I was only thinking the other day of all the people that have lost their kids and extended love ones due to this unforeseeable pandemic. How do we cope with such high-levels of human loss? And in my case; those unformed humans that never made it to full birth. But then, I remember that my grief isn’t always related to losing children, but primarily about the life and circumstances that I’ve found myself in due to not becoming a mother over ten-years ago. This unexpected life is all of my expectations now and I have to face that each and every day. So, thank you Karma or whatever force you’d like to call it, as I have to live with what’s happened to me each and every day.

    • Exactly, Nadia. People think you should just get over your loss. But how can you when you are constantly faced with reminders of what you’ve lost?

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