Lucy Meggeson is a British writer and broadcast producer (who really should have been on this side of the microphone before as she has a lovely voice!) and is on a mission to reclaim the word ‘spinster’. She has no children and although she now feels ‘childfree’, making peace with that was not without pain, as she shares with me in this interview. We also talk about the work it takes to construct a new idenity as a woman without children in our pronatalist society, and how this can be as transformative as becoming a mother yet remains unrecognised by society. We talk about ‘social infertilty’, as defined by the World Health Organisation, about the ‘disenfranchised grief’ of childlessness (and what the heck that is), about the ideology of pronatalism (ditto), about the growing numbers of single childless women and the societal shame that keeps them out of view and the very complex relationship that childless women have to the ‘freedom’ that parents tell us we’re so lucky to have, and so much more… You can listen to the episode here (or search ‘Spinsterhood Reimagined’ wherever you get your podcasts and connect with Lucy on Twitter @LucyMeggeson or Instagram @SpinsterhoodReimagined
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
[INTRO VOICEOVER LUCY]: Are you like me, a spinster? Are you single, childfree and tired of the stigma attached to your situation in life? Are you actually having a bloody great time living your best life while all of your friends are tied up with their husbands and kids? If you think being a spinster is actually pretty awesome, and you want to change the old-fashioned narrative, you want people to realise that not having a relationship or kids gives you the freedom to live a fabulous life all on your own terms, if this is you, then you’ve come to the right place. If, on the other hand, you’re a spinster who isn’t feeling quite so great about it, you’ve also come to the right place, because I want you to feel great about it. I want you to know that your life is just as valid, valuable and meaningful as anyone else’s. If you’re also interested in personal growth and working on yourself to become the best possible version of you, then you’re in luck, because we’re also going to be talking about my other obsession, personal development and how we can use the extra time we’ve been gifted due to our lack of relationship and children and use that time to really become the people we want to be. I’m excited. I hope you are too. Join me every Tuesday for episodes with just me, or me and one of my brilliant guests. My name is Lucy Meggeson. I’m so glad that you’re here. Welcome to Spinsterhood Reimagined.
Lucy: Hello and a very warm welcome back to Spinsterhood Reimagined. How are you? I’m very well. I’m very excited because I am going to Greece for a week really soon. And I haven’t been on holiday, I haven’t been away out of this country since October 2019. As I’m sure is the case for many of you, but I’m very excited about that. My guest this week is the incredible Jody Day. And I know that you guys are gonna love this conversation, especially if you are childless, not by choice. It’s a very, very powerful, inspirational and ultimately hopeful conversation about Jody’s journey. If any of you don’t already know who Jody Day is, she is the British founder of Gateway Women, which is the global friendship support and advocacy network for childless women. She’s also the author of a book called Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children, which I highly recommend you get if you are struggling with your journey of not having children for whatever reason. Jody is also a psychotherapist and two times TEDx speaker. And while she doesn’t have kids, she is married and lives with her husband in Ireland. As I say I really think you’re gonna love this conversation. It is very raw, very authentic, and I certainly came away from it feeling very thoughtful, very inspired and kind of feeling all the feels really. So I really hope that you guys will enjoy this conversation with Jody as much as I enjoy having it with her. Without further ado, here is the fantastic Jody Day.
Lucy: Jody Day. Thank you so much for joining me and welcome to Spinsterhood Reimagined I am genuinely excited to have you here and I’m so grateful that you’ve come on the show. So thank you, and you are the author of Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children. And you’re also the founder of Gateway Women, a global friendship and support network for childless women. But before we get into both the book and Gateway Women, can you just tell our listeners a bit about your background? How you came to be without kids and basically how you’ve ended up where you are now, I know you were married back in your 20s, so perhaps you could start there.
Jody: Okay, and thank you for inviting me onto the show Lucy. Lovely to be here. I met my then-husband when I was 21. We started going out when I was 22, got married when I was 26. At that point, I didn’t want to have children. I didn’t have any language for it. But I suppose I would have been ‘childfree.’ There was no language around it that I knew of at that time. I’d had a very difficult childhood. I’m a psychotherapist and it kind of goes with the territory. No one who trains as a psychotherapist had a happy childhood! It’s kind of entry level requirements. He said, ‘Okay, it’s fine if we don’t have kids.’ And then, we were married for a few years, and I began to realise that a lot of my fear around having children was to do with my own childhood. And that now I was part of his family, and he was one of six, with parents were very happily married, I began to understand there might be a different way – that family life might be something different. And so I shifted my position, I said I did want to have children and he’s like, ‘Okay!’ These huge life-changing decisions between couples that can actually derail partnerships, for us were quite straightforward, but that was the only thing that was straightforward.
Jody: I’d had an abortion when I was 20. I was in a good relationship before I met my then-husband, and I was terrified, absolutely terrified at the idea of becoming a mother. Because although I didn’t have any language for it at all, I was pretty traumatised from my childhood and terrified that, I’ll be honest, that I would mother my children as I had been mothered. And I was terrified to repeat the pattern of my mother and grandmother.
Jody: I’d grown up hearing that children ruin your life, including within my family. And also that was what you were hearing at school as well. I was born in ‘64. The message we were getting as teenagers at school were ‘Children ruin your life, whatever you do, don’t get pregnant.’ What they were actually trying to stop us doing was us getting pregnant as teenagers but the messaging was so powerful, that you know, ‘this will be the end of all opportunity for you, it will be a waste of your education and waste of your life, you will regret it forever.’ It was so strong the messaging not to get pregnant that they kind of forgot to mention that getting pregnant might be quite hard for some people, or that having children might be a joyful thing to do, when you meet the right partner, when you’re a bit older, all of these things, none of that was mentioned. Teenage pregnancy in the UK has been massively reduced. It was a very successful educational campaign.
Jody: However, for my generation, we came into adulthood with a very strong messaging against parenthood. My Barbie doll was ‘Airhostess Barbie’ – it was let’s see the world and then settle down. This messaging was coming from a generation of women who had not had the opportunities that were opening up for us. You know, those messages coming to me in the 70s were from a generation who was so excited for their daughters, for their female students, for the young women in their lives. So I don’t want to place any blame there. And so I thought everything worked, because I’d had an abortion, very scary thing to do and to have, it wasn’t a flippant decision at all, but I don’t regret it. It was the right thing for me at the time. But unfortunately, when it came to trying to conceive in my marriage, I wasn’t able to conceive.
Jody: After a few years, I went for an operation to see if there had been any damage during the abortion and actually the very avuncular gynecologist surgeon, as I was coming round from the operation, said ‘Finest uterus I’ve seen all week. You lovely young people just go off and have lots more sex.’ That was it. That was the extent of the fertility advice I was given.
Jody: Which, considering I was 33 by then, and I’d been trying to conceive for four years, was really pretty lax, because actually, it would have been time to go for other investigations at that point. But my then-husband and I were both given a clean bill of health, hormone-wise, structurally, everything you could possibly imagine and sent off. And I entered a period of baby mania, which is what I call it in my book, where I just did everything I possibly could to get pregnant. And I became obsessed with getting pregnant.
Jody: We were kind of the youngest couple in our social circle to get married, and suddenly everyone else was lapping us. Everyone else was having children. And we weren’t and I was convinced that I would get pregnant and we would have children. It was just going to happen at some point. And our marriage was under a huge amount of strain. I’d given up my successful PR practice, to put my energy into helping to build his interior design business because I thought, well, in two years, we’ll have children you know, his will be the business that supports us as a family until the children are a bit older. So it makes more sense for me to put my brand building and my business acumen into his business.
Jody: I look back on it now, it was an extraordinary decision to take because I was completely unconscious. I was like running this pronatalist script of how families and lives work, you know because actually I was a lot better at business than he was and if I hadn’t closed my technology PR business in the early 90s, I probably would have listed it on the stock exchange and retired at 40! But instead, I ended up running a business with my husband which became quite successful. We were sort of Z-list celebrities in London, decorating pop stars’ houses and all of that kind of thing. But he got very caught up in that world… and his early childhood trauma kind of came back to bite him on the arse and he got really lost in addiction. And the combination of his addictions and workaholism, plus my infertility and co-dependency pretty much did for us completely.
Jody: By the time I got to 38 and we were really looking at pursuing fertility treatments, which I’d always held out against it, I didn’t want to do them, I wanted to get pregnant naturally, the marriage was over. So I found myself leaving that marriage, it was my choice. I mean it was crazy what was going on behind closed doors because I was the one managing all that and keeping it from the world and from our clients and from family members and anyone who has lived with someone struggling and suffering with addiction will know that. Al-Anon is the organisation that saved my sanity. So if you have a friend or family member who is struggling with alcoholism or addiction, Al-Anon is there for you. Just so you know, public service broadcaster. And I was so obsessed, still, with having a baby that I was out of that marriage and back out dating. In the brand new world of internet dating at, I can only say, unseemly haste. I was not in any way ready to be doing that. I’d just come out of a 16-year relationship with the person that I thought I’d be spending the rest of my life with.
Jody: I did have two post-divorce relationships. One of them didn’t want to have children. The other one, he did want to have children and I think we probably would have gone on to IVF, but it was an emotionally very abusive relationship. After I’d finally got out of it, I understood that he was most likely struggling with narcissistic personality disorder. So I’ve had a lot of narcissistic abuse, which is, unfortunately extremely common. And if you come from a family where you’ve been badly treated as a child and you’re a very empathetic and sort of flexible person yourself, because you’ve been around a lot of difficult people in your life, as I have, they kind of seek us out. There’s a special type of very open-hearted, warm-hearted, super empathetic person that is a natural and unconscious target. I don’t want to make out that they are heat-seeking missiles, narcissists, but there is a match there. So I reached my early to mid 40s reeling after all of that. I’d lost my home and lost my business. I’d lost all my money. I’d lost my life partner and I’d lost the opportunity to have children. And that’s when I hit rock bottom. And that’s when I started Gateway Women.
Lucy: How old did you say you were at this point?
Jody: 45 by this point.
Lucy: At that point had you got to a stage where you believed that you probably weren’t going to have kids?
Jody: Yes, that was around 44 and a half, the end of that relationship and also the absolute sort of final bell for me that this isn’t going to happen. Because I didn’t know enough about fertility treatments because I had taken the media line that they always worked, but I had begun to understand that there was a cut-off point. And I realised that at 44 and a half even if I did meet someone else, I’d need to know them for at least a year before I could even think about talking about doing IVF, I’d be 45 and a half and that that was too late for IVF. I didn’t know about donor eggs at that point. It wouldn’t have been for me, a choice I would have been able to make, that I would have been comfortable making, I recognise it is for some people. But I didn’t know about that. So I knew, I thought, my biological child – that’s gone. I fell apart.
Lucy: Okay, so that’s what I was going to ask you. How did you feel and like you clearly went through some serious darkness. Can you can you tell me a bit about that?
Jody: It was the most profoundly bleak experience. It was a death. I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was grief, but it was a death of everything I had been and everything I could be. And all of the generations behind me, and all of the generations ahead of me, all gone. It was an existential loss of such profundity it’s hard to put into words.
Lucy: So it sounds as if you essentially felt like you were losing the person that you not only were, but you thought you were going to be. How did you deal with that and start to move forward?
Jody: Well, first, I didn’t deal with it, at first, because I had no idea that what I was going through was grief, and neither did Dr Google or therapists or psychologists or anyone that I spoke to. I didn’t realise that what I was going through was grief until I was in the second year of my psychotherapy training. And we were doing a training on working with bereavement. And we were learning about the five stages of grief model the Kübler-Ross model, and I’m sort of thinking this all feels very familiar. I went home that evening and mapped out the five stages of grief next to what I was going through around my childlessness and it was like, on my god, I’m grieving. This is grief. Because I’ve been through, you know, I’ve given you a little bit of a potted history of some of the challenges I dealt with in life, I had not had an easy life, and I had risen to every challenge. I had found people to support me, I’d found information that I needed, I’d done the work, I’m a strong and resilient and resourceful person, but I couldn’t find a way through this despair that I was experiencing, this complete loss of joy, this complete loss of interest in life, this inability to see a child or see a mother without feeling like I was being kicked in the chest. It was so painful. And the fact that mothers and children, and talking about mothers and children, was absolutely everywhere.
Jody: And nobody would listen. When I would try and talk about my pain, I’d get bingo-ed: ‘Oh, you’re still so young. Oh, you could just have one on your own. Oh, you dodged a bullet. Oh, children aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, here have one of mine. Oh you’re so lucky, you get to sleep in and travel.’ All of these and I’m just like, standing there, just completely baffled that this could be from someone at the bus stop. Or it could be from a therapist, or a best friend and you just think is no one actually hearing what I’m saying here? And often I would just get articles sent to me about how someone 20 years older than me got pregnant and this that and the other. The idea was just don’t give up hope. And the idea that I’d say, No, I have given up hope. You know, that’s gone, that dream is gone. People couldn’t deal with the idea that I was facing up to the reality of my situation. They were not happy with me to be doing that!
Lucy: It’s interesting how people sort of grasp, I think it’s because it makes people feel uncomfortable when other people have to deal with our sadnesses about being childless or being single or whatever it may be. Other people find these things very uncomfortable. And so I suppose the way that they think, the best way that they know to try and make people feel better is, you know, I’ve had sort of people say similar things. I mean, my journey has been very different to yours. But one thing actually that I will say about my own situation, is that I can relate, not on the same level as you, but I can relate to the grieving thing. And I’d be really interested to see what you think about this because it seems to me that childless women of our kind of age, grief, it’s not really something that’s acknowledged. And I have found and again, my journey has been very different, just to cut a long story short, I’ve ended up childfree just out of circumstances, we’ll get on to the many different reasons that people can end up without kids, but my personal reason is, there isn’t really a reason. It’s not that I didn’t want them, it’s not that I chose not to have them. It’s not that I couldn’t get pregnant. It’s just simply my life has gone in a certain direction and I’ve ended up not having kids.
Lucy: So I wasn’t ever one of those broody girls from a young age. And then it kind of hit me basically as I hit 40. It was almost like my body was just saying, for God’s sake have a fricking baby. And I then started to experience those physical feelings of broodiness that were so alien to me because I’d never had them before. But anyway the reason I’m telling you this is because over the subsequent few years that have been between now and then, I’m now 46, I feel like I’ve grieved not having a baby just quietly by myself, in my own head, in my own flat, on my own. And I’m not trying to dramatize that as being more major than my personal experience has been because obviously yours undoubtedly was more profound for whatever reasons, but what I’m trying to say is, it definitely feels like the grief of not having a baby isn’t necessarily something that has really been acknowledged by other people. Would you agree with that?
Jody: Absolutely 100%. The grief of childlessness, of not having a baby, is a form of disenfranchised grief. It is a grief that is not socially acceptable to experience or to talk about. There are many forms of disenfranchised grief. Childlessness is one of them. And there are others. For example, if you were in a long-term relationship or marriage and you then separate or divorce, and then many years later, or at some point later, that ex-partner dies and you’re grieving for that partner, people will say to you, ‘But you can’t be grieving, you’re over them, that was years ago.’ There will be an idea of ‘No, I’m sorry that grief isn’t allowed. That’s not real.’ You almost get gaslit for your grief. ‘No, you’re not grieving.’ That’s disenfranchised grief. And childlessness is a big one. People will say ‘You can’t really grieve something you haven’t had.’ It’s like, try half an hour in my head and then tell me it’s not real.
Jody: I wanted to acknowledge what you’ve been through in your head, on your own, in your flat, and I just noticed how you diminished that experience and compared it to mine. There is no hierarchy of grief, your grief is profound. It is a profoundly transformative and painful experience. And someone else’s grief is also their profound grief. It’s not a ladder, mine wasn’t bigger than yours. I’m sure it was extremely painful and doing it on your own is very, very painful indeed. Because grief is a social emotion. It is a form of love. It needs that other to be in relationship with in order to understand itself. And I just want you to know that I see you and I acknowledge what you’ve been through too.
Lucy: Thank you Jody. How did your grief manifest in yourself?
Jody: Gosh, that’s a good question. How long have you got?! I think it was very confusing because it was mixed up with midlife, singleness, the perimenopause, which was starting for me quite early, but I didn’t know what it was. And neither did the doctor. And loneliness, I experienced some profoundly lonely years during that time whilst I was adjusting to my new reality as social plankton, as a single childless woman. And having been someone who had always been in partnership – I’d probably been in one long-term relationship or another since I was about 15 – so for me to find myself in my mid-40s and single was quite alien to me. It was a heck of an adjustment. My personality changed.
Jody: I withdrew from the world massively, but also I found that things that used to bring me joy didn’t work anymore. So you know, I couldn’t read books anymore. I am a writer and I was a literature graduate, I’ve been reading books voraciously since I learned to read, but I couldn’t lose myself in a book anymore. I couldn’t watch films. As I said before, I couldn’t be around families, babies. And there were just triggers everywhere. The whole world was just one big trigger for my pain. I’d do things like I’d go swimming, and I couldn’t even get past the changing rooms. Because it was just the whole palaver of everything, the energy of it, and also, all of the children running around the changing room. I’d just end up in the cafe, you know, having crisps and a hot chocolate from the vending machine. And really, if I was to write an autobiography of how I felt during those years, I would probably call them the carbohydrate years, really red wine and cake was about the only thing that sort of brought a smile to my face for me. It was like I was living my life in black and white. I spent so much time on my own, and I didn’t recognise myself and I felt hopeless, pointless.
Jody: At some points, I was so low, I remember one particular day when I just lay on the floor of my flat, staring at a crack in the skirting board. I thought well, I will lie here until I can think of a compelling reason to stand up. In the end, it was my bladder that got me off the floor. But I felt that I was sometimes using oxygen that would be better needed by someone else. And although I didn’t want to take my own life, I didn’t know if I had the strength of character to live the rest of my life in this much pain. Because when I looked at the years ahead of me, all of these years I was so lucky to have, empty of children, it felt to me like a dark lake stretching between me and death that I had absolutely no idea how I was going to cross. And that every day was just like scratching the day off the wall in a prison cell like you see in those old black and white movies. My life felt like an almost intolerable burden.
Lucy: What was the turning point?
Jody: I think that that moment, when I realised I was grieving, was a turning point for me, because it gave me something I could grab onto.
Lucy: Was it like, you understood the reason for your pain? Is that what you mean?
Jody: Yes. Two things. I understood that grief was a process and that meant somehow, though I didn’t understand how, somehow, one day I was going to come out the other end of this. That this wasn’t a life sentence, that this person I’d become, who I thought maybe this is just the new middle age me, hurrah, I hate it. No, I’m going through something which means I’m going to come out the other side. That gave me a little bit of hope. And also its grief. Okay, so I’m not going crazy! Because the internal cognitive reality of grief, of all grief, is profoundly confusing.
Because I now understand that grief is a process of identity transformation. We are being transformed into the person who can live in the world without that thing. Whether that’s a person, or a dream, or a country or something, you are transformed into a person who can live in the world on a daily basis without that thing that you thought you couldn’t live without. And that changes you.
Jody: And during that process of change, it can be quite funky! You know, what’s going on in there?! And probably the last time most of us went through a change this profound may have been adolescence. And I think the process of not becoming a mother when you really, really wanted to, or maybe even when you’re childfree and you’re pushing back against society’s ideas about you, I think that process of finding solidity in our identity as a non-mother is as transformative as becoming one. And it is totally unrecognised.
Lucy: It’s so interesting. You just mentioned society now. I’ve heard you talk about the concept of social infertility. Tell me about that.
Jody: Well it’s a sexy sound isn’t it? The term was actually coined by the World Health Organisation who actually have defined it as a subcategory of infertility. It’s a type of infertility. Infertility is categorised as a disease and social infertility now falls under that category. It was first really thought of for those couples, those individuals and couples who perhaps because of their sexual orientation, weren’t able to partner and would have to have the support of fertility technologies in order to get pregnant. But it very soon came to be understood also that there are many people for whom it is actually the lack of a partner that is the issue rather than necessarily needing that technology. I’d also like to say that for our, lesbian, gay and queer sisters, and bisexual sisters, they also can be childless due to social infertility, OR be childless by circumstance due to not having a willing or suitable partner during those years. If we look at, I think this is 2014 this analysis was done, it does need to be updated. But if we look at those women who reach midlife without children, it’s 20% and it’s on the rise, I think it’s heading towards 1 in 3 soon – you’ll be seeing some big numbers. Childfree is 10%, childless by infertility is 10%. The big bit in the middle – 80% is childless by circumstance. And the biggest ‘circumstance’ I’ve seen, and I’ve seen it more and more as the years goes by, is unchosen singleness.
Lucy: That’s what’s so interesting, isn’t it? Because there tends to be an assumption that you are either childfree because you’ve chosen to be childfree, or you’re childfree because you couldn’t have kids for whatever medical reason, but it’s so not black and white. When it comes to not having children there are so many shades of grey, you know, myself being one of them for example, I find that so interesting. I think people do tend to assume that it’s one of these two extremes and they forget the many, many stories in between. We’ll talk about Gateway Women but before you tell everybody exactly what it’s about, through Gateway Women you must have come across so many different stories of why people have ended up not having kids.
Jody: Hundreds and hundreds. In Chapter One of my book, you can download Chapter One for free, there is a section called ‘50 ways not to be a mother.’ And that was a blog of mine back from 2012, which then became part of the first edition of my book. I’ve updated it, my book’s now on its second edition with Pan Macmillan, so it’s third edition including the original self-published one and I mean, it could be ‘100 ways.’ I could keep going, I stopped at 50 for journalistic reasons. It really resonates with many people, infertility and childlessness are just two. I think because the stories of childlessness by circumstance are complex and layered, they don’t fit on a tweet, that’s a lot harder for the media and the sort of the narrative around modern womanhood to get a grip on. Because it’s also not about agency, it is often not about agency. It’s about complex human decisions and systems. Whereas infertility – Oh, she couldn’t have children, okay. Childfree – Oh, she didn’t want children, okay, I get that. But actually, this is about the messy experience of being a modern woman. Of trying to make sense of, you know, what kind of career do I have? Do I even want a career or do I want a job. Do I want to have a baby now, do I want to have a baby with this person or not? Am I really the baby kind? Am I meant to be feeling really maternal by now? And then it’s not convenient to have a baby now, there’s this amazing opportunity or, I’m with this person who doesn’t want them, or shit I’ve just got lupus, or my partner’s got a mental health difficulty or I have or, you know, I’m looking after my mum right now, I can’t have a baby. So many things that happen in life, that if you were to kind of just go fuck it, I’ll just have a baby right now, people would go ‘Are you crazy?’ And then you get to 40 and everyone goes, ‘What have you been doing with your time?!’
Lucy: It’s so complex, isn’t it? That group of women that do not fall into the category of childfree by choice or childless because they couldn’t have kids, is there an argument to say that they’re actually very difficult for society to know what to do with and how to categorise them? Do you think this sort of stigma feeds into that or rather, does that feed into the stigma around being childfree or childless? Whichever way you want to look at it?
Jody: Pronatalism has a fundamental problem with women without children. Particularly once we move beyond childbearing years, and that is an observable thing. There’s a certain point, there’s an invisible threshold you cross at which point people decide you’re beyond your childbearing years. And at that point, if you’re not a mother, and you’re not potentially the mother of a man’s children or looking after a man’s children or partnered with a man, you’re kind of really not much use to the patriarchal project at this point. So they generally don’t know what to do with us. We are a loose cannon. So we’re also very powerful.
Jody: The best way to keep us in our box is to shame us. And shame stops us from going okay, so whether I’ve chosen it or not, I’m not going to be spending the next 20 to 30 years of my life, caring for the next generation. That’s a huge chunk of life that I can dedicate to something else. Maybe I’ll overthrow patriarchy.
Jody: But imagine one in three of us gets to the point where we’re not involved in child rearing during those years. It means that if we are ambitious in a certain way and we want to dedicate ourselves to something, and not everyone does, that whole career women idea that every woman without children is some ballbusting career woman who has massive ambition to take over the world. Not really. Because we’re just as unique and diverse as we would have been had we been mothers you know, there are mothers who want to take over the world and there are childless women who do not, you know, it’s not me, Gateway Women is exhausting enough as it is. But I think that when there are so many of us in society who are not engaged with childbearing during that period, and therefore we do have the time to get involved in public life and in other things, it starts to give a lie to the idea that the reason the men historically have done those jobs and have been in charge and have made those decisions is not because they’re necessarily better suited to them. It’s because they had the time. So the last thing we want to do is all of these women who aren’t having children to kind of realise their power, because it’s actually politically and ideologically very destabilising and shame is the most powerful tool of social control.
Lucy: I feel that shame doesn’t allow us to own our situation.
Jody: Totally. And it also within the childless community, which is kind of more where my expertise is. That shame prevents childless women from reaching out to each other as well. I remember years ago, I was giving a public talk, quite early days of Gateway Women and this woman came in and she’s sitting in the audience, and sort of at the question bit at the end, which is really what it was all about, and then we would all go to the bar. It was really just a way to kind of meet in the social. She put her hand up and said, You know, I really didn’t want to come I was really nervous of coming, which is normal with childless women, because I thought everyone in the room would be a weeping weirdo. I look around the room and I see –
Lucy: Strong, intelligent, interesting women!
Jody: Yes. She had internalised and she recognised it and she spoke that narrative that childless women and in a similar but different way childfree women have to fight against. If you imagine, why would you want to go in a room with a group of weeping weirdos? So it stops childless women connecting with each other, because when you connect with each other you discover it’s not true, and at that point the potential for liberation happens.
Lucy: Speaking of connecting these women, tell me about Gateway Women, which I think is absolutely inspiring. Tell our listeners about the background, when you set it up, what motivated you to found this brilliant support network?
Jody: I’d love to have some excellent ex-post rationalisation story about my brilliant visionary abilities, but actually it was a complete accident. I started a blog eleven years ago because nobody would let me talk about my childlessness. And I actually gave up trying to talk about it because of the bingoes and because of the endless advice giving and the fact that I wasn’t getting anywhere with trying to talk about it. And so I stopped because I was tired of being shamed of trying to talk about this thing. So I started writing honestly. I called it Gateway Women, my own photograph was on it, I used my real name. I didn’t hide. And I wrote honestly about what I was feeling. I had no huge expectations of it. But the very next day, I got my first piece of PR, next day, after the first blog was published, and blogs by the way, we’ll just engage the Wayback Machine, they were quite a big deal over a decade ago!
Jody: And women from all over the world were writing back to me in the comments of my blog saying ‘How do you know the exact words that are in my head? I thought I was the only person with these feelings.’ I was blown away by this because I had learned that for my generation, my cohort, the 1960s, it was one in four women of my age were reaching midlife without children. But I thought where are they? I don’t know them. I don’t know anyone either in my family, my friendship group, my colleagues, in public life I don’t know anyone. The only two people I knew and they were both childfree were Oprah Winfrey, and Lucy Worsley, the TV historian. She used to make programmes about the Tudors. She’s less visible these days but she was writing about it. But that was it, and they were both childfree I couldn’t find anyone who was going through the pain of childlessness. There were a couple of people in America who had written books but that was about coming to terms with life as a couple after failed infertility treatments. I didn’t find anyone.
Jody: I was the first person to start writing about being childless by circumstance, being single and childless, about the kind of the double whammy and how hard that is to navigate and the grief of being single as well as the grief of childlessness.
Jody: Because it can be a very complex loss. Dr. Pauline Boss, who is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist coined a term called ‘ambiguous loss.’ And that’s really helpful in understanding the loss around being single because it’s unlike a bereavement or a definitive loss like childlessness, where, you know, I am never going to be a mother, nothing is ever going to change that. One of the complexities of inhabiting a single life when actually you would like to be partnered, is you can’t ever completely draw a line under it. So you have that mixture of hope and loss, of presence and absence, that you live with on a daily basis, and that is called ambiguous loss. And once again, I think there is a lack of understanding in the culture around what it’s like to inhabit that place, to perhaps be hopeful of a future partnership while also accepting that today this is where I am. And I want to also really be in my life today, rather than waiting for it to start when possibly one day I meet a partner. And that’s not understood.
Lucy: Yeah, and that’s exactly one of the main reasons why I started this podcast called Spinsterhood Reimagined, because my aim is to not only attract women who are already happily single and childfree, like say me, I haven’t always been, it’s also to attract those people who aren’t there yet. To know that they are not the only ones who are feeling the way that they’re feeling but to know that there is a space that they can go to, to listen to people talking about the great things about not having kids or not being in relationship. Whether or not you end up having kids or getting into a relationship. Now actually, just while I’d mentioned the name of the podcast, what’s your take on the word ‘spinsterhood’? Because Oh my Lord…
Jody: I’m all for reclaiming it. One of the exercises in, Gateway Woman has a healing weekend called the Reignite Weekend which I created over a decade ago now and it’s run nearly 60 times around the world now, this weekend to help you process the losses around your childlessness. And I do this consciousness-raising exercise within it and one of the hot topic words that we unpack, and I unpack this in my book as well, is ‘spinster,’ is really start to look at all the negative associations that are attached to that word, and then flip them. Because what we’re looking at with those negative words is we’re actually looking at what I call the dark side of the archetype. But actually, if you flip it, there is the light side of the archetype. And that is the bit that we’re not allowed to feel. That is the bit, I hate to use this word ‘patriarchy’ – it turns some people off, but let’s just say ‘society,’ society doesn’t want single women to feel good about themselves. So rather than feeling free, creative, loving, nurturing, adventurous and kind, and all of these things that we can, we get the negative sides of that, you know, we’re sort of selfish and stunted, unchosen and miserable. And all these things. Now we’re complex human beings, we feel all of those things. We don’t wake up like Wonder Woman everyday thinking, ‘Wow, I’m single, I feel fantastic!’
Lucy: Also, every person no matter what situation you’re in feels every range of emotions depending on what is happening in your life.
Jody: Mothers have to put up with the idea that they only feel gloriously happy and fulfilled every day. That’s also all they’re allowed to talk about, and so they are in a way bright sided. They’re only allowed to express and inhabit the bright side of the archetype of motherhood. And actually the dark side of motherhood, they have to keep private, they only share it with their mum friends or on anonymous blogs. Single childless women or childfree women are only allowed to inhabit the miserable side. We’re not allowed to be happy. Because, well, no one’s going to want you, I mean, you’ve got your life sorted, you’re too happy to have a partner now!
Lucy: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t! I’m so sorry, that was completely my fault, but I took this completely off. You were explaining about how you set up Gateway Women, so please carry on about that.
Jody: Actually, I will have to take joint responsibility for that, we both went off-road at that point! So I started my blog, and then women were writing to me from all over the world. And then I was interviewed. I gave my first public talk about grief and childlessness. There was a journalist in the audience at that talk, there were only about eight people in the audience, I knew five of them, you know, they were there just to support me. And I was incredibly nervous. I am not a natural public speaker. And the idea that I’ve ended up being this sort of spokesperson is one of those weird quirks of life – I never thought that would be me. And she said, ‘Can I interview you?’ And she interviewed me and it was a piece that came out in The Guardian about six months later, it went viral, it’s still being read. And it’s over a decade ago now. And it was really about how my childlessness had impacted my friendships, and about Gateway Women and I got a lot of people sort of following me from that.
Jody: What was really happening is people were saying to me, you seem to understand this experience, and you seem to be articulating it in a way that no one else is, can you do something? And, you know, I thought, Well, I’m a basket case, what can I do? I was very much still in the grief. But because I’d had such an amazing experience in Al-Anon in the 12-step movement, of the power of peer-to-peer healing, of being in a room with other people who were going through a different version of the same experience and sharing our stories in a confidential space. I thought, okay, I don’t need to have all the answers. I don’t need to be perfectly healed. Maybe if I just bring us together with a framework, with confidentiality in a safe space. You know, I was two years into my training to be a psychotherapist. In the 12-step movement, I’d led quite a few groups and discovered that I had a capacity to lead a group and that was showing up in my psychotherapy training as well. I thought, Okay, I’ll give it a go. I’m a natural entrepreneur, so I was like, ‘Let’s give it a try!’ So I did and that first group which ran for 10 weeks was a huge success, I ran that group three times, then I turned the material from that into the weekend workshop.
Jody: And every time I just created what I needed, in the beginning, and I did it, because it was just me, I did it in my style. So it was perhaps a little bit less self-helpy and a little bit more modern than than any – I sort of I hate the word ‘brand’ – had been in that space before as well. I wasn’t someone who was post-fertility treatments. I feel in many ways I’ve got the whole spectrum from childless to childfree in me, you know, from not wanting to have kids, wanting kids, trying to have kids, not being able to have kids, being single and childless and looking for someone to have kids with, and then being single and childless and grieving and coming to terms with that. These days, I feel probably what is called in the literature ‘adapted childfree’ which is I think I feel as at peace with my childlessness as if I had chosen it, but I will never know because I can’t live both lives. But I feel very at peace with not having children. Actually, the place I’m at is not somewhere I would have thought it was possible to get.
Jody: And I would say that if there is someone listening right now, who is in deep grief over their childlessness, if what I’m saying sounds quite alien and you go, well, that’s fine for Jody, she’s different. I’m never going to be okay with this. I just want you to know that grief is the process that will get you to your version of being at peace with this. Trust the process and really Gateway Women is really a massive support network for during that grief, but also after – okay, how do I shape my life? How do I inhabit this world that is still so phenomenally unfriendly to women without children, for whatever reason,
Lucy: Jody going back to what you were saying about how you have now come to a place where you found peace, not having kids. Tell us about the great things that you can now appreciate about not having kids.
Jody: It’s the freedom word, which is, I think, when you’re grieving your childlessness is really hard to hear. When people have said to me but you’ve got your freedom, I used to think, you have no idea what this freedom feels like. I remember what freedom felt like in my 20s, that is not what this feels like. But now that the grieving process got me to a point where I was able to build a new relationship with that freedom, it no longer felt like a curse. And then it started to be full of the idea of possibility.
Jody: It doesn’t all come in neat stages. The acceptance part of grief came in dribs and drabs towards the end of the process and was also quite challenging. Because there was a part of me that didn’t want to be okay with my childlessness, because actually my identity had become Jody, this grieving, childless woman. And I thought, well, who will I be? It’s like, who will I be without my children, but then who will I be without my grief? Because I got so used to it. Then I was kind of coming to the other side and it’s like, oh, I don’t really know who I’m going to be. And I had to experiment with what kind of person I was, what kind of life I wanted. My values had changed, my perspective on the world had changed. My heart had been broken open by my childlessness. But it had also been broken open to let in so much more.
Jody: It’s funny, often it’s the idea that becoming a mother makes us a much more empathetic person, for me, actually grieving my childlessness profoundly transformed me. I think really elevated my consciousness to realise, not elevated, that’s the wrong word, opened my consciousness to realise what it was like to be part of a minority group, not of your choosing, and the world deciding that you’re less than other people because of it. I started to really understand more about the experience of other disenfranchised groups. So in a way it re-politicised me in a way that I had been as a teenager. I’d kind of gone to sleep in my marriage. Those single years were very powerful in shaping my view of the world.
Jody: So to talk to someone who is deep in grief, there’s a very difficult part of this journey which is when we are still hopeful that motherhood might happen. But we’re also mindful of the fact that that may not be the case. And it’s out of our control. Maybe because we’re on a complex fertility journey, maybe because we want to have a child with a partner. And that partner is not around, maybe both, but there’s still some hope. And that hope is killing us. I call hope one of the most toxic fertility drugs and we can’t kind of completely grieve childlessness yet because we’re not completely there. You’re in a kind of really awful limbo.
Jody: If that’s where you are and you’re determined to make a decision and come down on one side or the other side, it would be lovely to do that and to be free of this, this ambiguous period in your life, but it doesn’t seem to work like that. Grief is the emotion that arises to help you through an irrevocable loss. So the first part of grief is losing hope. It’s gone. It’s not going to happen. And that is not a cognitive decision. You know when you’ve crossed that threshold, it’s gone. For me it was 44 and a half, it’s like it’s over. But I didn’t sit down and have a calendar and work to 44 and a half. There was just a day when I knew I was done. That it wasn’t going to happen for me in this lifetime.
Jody: Once you reach the point when it’s definitely not going to happen for you, and you begin the grieving process, you need support. My book is a guide to going through that process but you need more than a book. You can access an online community like Gateway Women and there are others as well, where you can share what’s happening in your internal world. And another woman will go ‘Yes, I had this experience too,’ or ‘Gosh, that’s exactly where I am today.’ And that’s the relationship you need. You can grieve online, but you need empathy. You need other women who will get it, not ‘No you can’t be feeling that’ or ‘Really it’s not that bad’ or ‘Gosh aren’t you over that yet’ or ‘Cheer up love!’
Jody: You want someone to go ‘Yeah, it’s really shit when that happens isn’t it? That happened to me last week’ or ‘I’m feeling that right now.’ When people say what is grief work? It’s such an unhelpful saying in a way, it’s just being in your grief and talking about it, and then doing things to help you with your grief. There are lots of things you can do to support yourself in the grieving process.
Grief is not an illness. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It is the most powerful, the most transformational human emotion. It is the engine of change. It is the engine of creativity. It exists to get you into the next part of your life.
Lucy: How wonderful. Just hearing you talk about it in those terms is so eye opening. It really makes you think about it from very, very different perspective. Can you tell us about the book?
Jody: Okay, for radio here it is. I’m pointing to Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children. I’m very proud of this book. The second edition came out in 2020. That’s the second edition with Bluebird Pan Macmillan. The first Bluebird one was 2016. It was originally self-published, crowd funded from the Gateway Women community and self-published in 2013. I was looking at it the other day, I was reading some bits looking for something. I thought this is really quite good. She’s onto something! I’m also really pleased I wrote it when I did, because I was coming out of the grief. But I was still in it.
Lucy: It was very cathartic.
Jody: Yes and it was still with me. And I put everything into it that had helped me to move forward. I put all my psychotherapeutic training into it, my 12-Step understanding, by that point, my couple of years of running workshops and dealing with 1000s of women online. So I had quite a lot of material, but there is a rawness in the book that really speaks to people who are grieving. I never realised it’s also quite funny apparently, I don’t know there’s something about dark humour when you’re in the bottom of a hole! And it is ultimately a hopeful book, but it’s about a different kind of hope. It’s like okay, the hope of being a mum is gone. And it’s about getting through the process of letting go of that hope. And then having the courage and the company to create a new hope for your life. I have given of myself to the world in a different way. And when I was a little girl, what I wanted to do with my life was I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to make the world a better place. And when I look back on my life now, I can die happy. It’s like I came about it a very strange way. Actually, I have done what I was here to do.
Lucy: You got there in the end.
Jody: I got there in a roundabout kind of way. And I’m not done yet.
Lucy: Jody, thank you so much for coming on Spinsterhood Reimagined. Certainly for me, this has been an incredibly interesting, insightful and ultimately hopeful conversation. Before we finish, do you have one piece of advice or one thing that you would want to say to women who want to find a fulfilling future without children, if that is something that they didn’t expect or didn’t want to not have kids?
Jody: You were born childless and worthy. You remain childless and worthy. Childlessness cannot take that away from you. No matter what society says. You are an extremely valuable human being, don’t allow childlessness to define you as a woman. You are more than your childlessness.
Lucy: Jody what an absolutely inspirational place to finish. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you genuinely for coming on this podcast. It has been fabulous to have you here and I really truly appreciate it. And I’m sure that there are many women out there listening to this who are grateful and thankful that they have discovered you if they hadn’t already. But on that note, where can people find you? How can people follow you? Tell us the name of the book again? Where can they get it? All the information please!
Jody: You’ll find everything on the Gateway Women website which is gateway-women.com. You’ll find me on social media @gatewaywomen both Twitter and Instagram, and the book Living the Life Unexpected is available in paperback or on Kindle, on Amazon and also in all good book shops. And if it’s not in your local library, ask them to get a copy because that way you can do a little bit of advocacy at the same time.
Lucy: Fabulous Jody, thank you so much. Well, I really, really hope that you guys enjoyed that conversation with Jody Day. Thank you so much for listening. I really appreciate you taking the time to listen to this podcast. It means a lot because I know that we’re all extremely busy so to think that you’re taking an hour or whatever it is out of your day to listen to this really means a lot to me. So thank you truly. Please do subscribe rate and review on Apple podcasts if possible. Reviews really help me to get this podcast out to the right people. And it’s quite difficult to get it out there amongst the 2 million other podcasts. So if you’re able to take the time to just do a very quick review and rating on Apple podcasts, that would be amazing. I would hugely appreciate it. And also, if you could share this episode, if you’ve enjoyed it with anyone else that you think would appreciate it, or would get something out of it. That would be brilliant. Do follow me on Instagram, if you’re not already, it’s @spinsterhoodreimagined. I’m on Twitter @LucyMeggeson. And also feel free to drop me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and do come and join my Facebook group. I’ll put the link to that in the show notes. Okay, have a great week, and I’ll see y’all next time. But in the meantime, remember, one day, I’m gonna get Jennifer Aniston on this podcast. See you next time. Bye.
Thank you, ladies. Your chat lifted my spirits today.