A guest blog by Yvonne John, author of Dreaming of a Life Unlived: Intimate Stories and Portraits of Women without Children, and a licensed Gateway Women Sister who will be leading Gateway Women’s first Reignite Weekend for Women of Colour in London in April 2018 and in Luton in September 2018. Click here or scroll down for an video interview with Yvonne where we discuss childlessness after abortion, the impact of infertility on marriage, Yvonne’s difficult experience as a single, childless women in a charismatic Christian church, race, identity and more…
One of my earliest memories of childhood was when I used to place my Mum’s doilies (they had frilly borders and were a very common feature of Caribbean homes), on my head like a wig and flick it around (like the L’Oreal ad) trying to imagine that I had long, flowing hair like my white school friends.
I am first generation British, second born in a house that held strong values. Growing up I had a strong sense of my Dad’s pride and joy at leaving the Caribbean for England at the age of twenty. Whilst in Britain, my Dad got educated and successfully secured a good job in a respectable trade, got married, set up home and had three children. I guess the struggles that both my parents experienced since disembarking from the boat Irpinia in 1966 (Mum) and 1967 (Dad) at Southampton led them to want to give us a strong sense of who we are as black British citizens.
I remember my Dad telling me stories of when he first arrived in England and the signs stating, ‘No blacks, No dogs, No Irish’ in the windows of rented accommodation, and I especially remember the story he told about how an estate agent had told him that he’d only be able to buy his first house in a run-down part of South East London, rather than where he wanted to live. He eventually bought his first property in Thornton Health; a house that I have fond childhood memories of.
Looking back, I’m not surprised that my parents wanted us to carry ourselves with pride. I was told that I had to work twice as hard as my school friends because I was both black and a girl, and that I should aim to be amongst the top five in my school year academically. My parents expected me to go to university and become a doctor or lawyer, as these were seen as respectable careers (I am neither a doctor nor a lawyer) because Dad had worked so hard to make it possible for me to have these opportunities. I was also expected to marry a decent man to raise a family with, to never bring shame on the family, nor to bring a white man home. I don’t remember what went through my mind when such wisdom was imparted, but I do remember that throughout the years not only have I felt that I’ve always had to hide what I’ve been up to (reflecting on my antics has brought such a smile to my face) but also that I couldn’t talk to anyone about them. OK, yes, I did share the fun and happy times with my friends, but when things weren’t great I felt so alone, silenced and ashamed. So much was ‘unspeakable’.
Going to school in South London was great; I had a mix of friends (Black, White British, White Italian and Asian) and I don’t remember seeing myself as different from any of them, except for my hair of course – I used to ask God, why did he give me this hair?! My teachers, on the other hand, told a very different story. I remember a time when cutting shapes or names into your hair was the fashion for young black boys and how when that look started showing up in our school the teachers made a point of excluding those boys until their hair grew out. Or the time that I returned to school one Autumn after a family holiday in Trinidad with braided hair. It was such a relief not have to worry about my hair for a while, and I just loved how I looked, so it was a shock to me when a teacher pulled me to one side and asked if I could have less plaits in my hair in the future.
I am not really sure how our hairstyles affected our ability to learn…
As my school years came to an end, I remember being asked at the career’s advice day if I’d considered becoming a shop assistant. I was also rejected from the sixth form college I’d applied for because my school report said that I wasn’t good enough and didn’t have any hope of passing my GCEs. When, three years after leaving school I attended a school reunion and proudly informed one of my old teachers that I was at Bristol Poly studying Medical Laboratory Science, she promptly informed me that the course sounded too good for me and wondered how I’d been accepted onto it in the first place.
Well, despite my teacher’s lack of faith in me I obtained my HND in Medical Laboratory Science and have both a Masters degree and a diploma in management.
My twenties were a difficult time for me as I navigated my way through becoming a women, talking to boys, dating, getting my career started (although I do not consider myself ‘a career women’) and generally making decisions that would affect the rest of my life – and not in that particular order – things got a bit more complicated than I was prepared for. I distinctly remember thinking that, no matter how much fun I was having, there were ‘those’ mistakes (that I now more kindly refer to as decisions) that I could never tell anyone about, let alone my parents.
It was my early twenties and I was accidentally pregnant and I so desperately needed to be able to talk to them about it, but all I could see was the shame that I was carrying; all I could hear were the words, “Your life has been ruined”. So I terminated the pregnancy and went on with living my life.
Shame knocked on my door again in my late twenties when I found myself once more in the same situation. It was such a difficult choice to make: the baby, or me, and again I felt so ashamed and alone. Around me were friends who’d become single mums and hearing their stories of how they’d been banished from the family home (because of the shame of being pregnant and unwed), their sisters not even being allowed to be in contact with them, the constant arguments they were having with the fathers of their kids – this was a life that scared me – and I couldn’t bear the term ‘Baby Madda – I hated it! I didn’t want to be a woman who had a baby with a man who already had another child (I met a guy who had five Baby Madda’s) and yet would never became his wife. This really wasn’t the life that my parents had mapped out for me.
I reached a point where my sense of being lost and my feelings of confusion were starting to overwhelm me. The words, ‘You are feeling this way because you don’t have God in your life’ became louder in my head. I really needed to understand why my life was nose-diving out of control: I wanted to escape my feelings of worthlessness and that men only wanted me for sex; I wanted to stop feeling like I wasn’t ‘good enough’; I wanted the crap to stop. So in my late twenties I walked though the doors of a charismatic church and loved the idea that I would be accepted for me, that God would forgive me for my sins and that my past would be in the past; I would be made whole again and I could finally walk away from my shame. I immersed myself in the church: I felt loved, I felt secure, and I felt like nothing else mattered because God would take care of it all. But ten years later, once again I started to feel like I didn’t belong, like I wasn’t good enough and I took the decision to leave amidst a lot of criticism.
Being a single and childless Christian woman is hard, because, like everywhere else in society, at the end it’s all about marriage and children. And it wasn’t happening for me. It was tough, but I went on a journey of self-discovery and, at thirty-seven, could finally look myself in the mirror with a smile and say, “You know what Yvonne, you’re OK”.
I met my husband at thirty-eight, was married at thirty-nine and after three years of trying to conceive naturally was diagnosed with unexplained infertility. It was an extremely difficult time as I really didn’t understand that I had been propelled into a world of grief, all I knew was that it was dark and lonely and I couldn’t imagine a way out. No matter how hard I tried to leave the past in the past, it was as if there was a ‘thing’ in the shadows that was haunting me, and that was my shame over the abortions. I was lucky to have a friend who knew that the turmoil I was going through was grief and pointed me in the direction of Jody and Gateway Women. However, because of my terminations I felt that I didn’t deserve to be a mum, and I certainly didn’t deserve to be amongst other grieving childless women. But I couldn’t have been more wrong and the help and support that I received from those women whilst working through my grief meant everything to me. Without it, I really don’t know how I would have survived, let alone allowed myself to come to terms with the past and feel able to talk openly and honestly about it to anyone, including those outside the Gateway Women community.
As much opening up in this way went against everything that I had been taught as a black woman, learning to forgive my younger self and to love her again was an incredible part of my healing, and something that I could not have done on my own.
In conversation with Jody we’ve explored what it is about the experience of childlessness that’s different for Women of Colour and why that difference might keep black women from seeking out the healing and support of the sisterhood of childless women. Prior to this conversation I don’t think that I’d considered how my experience as a childless women was any different from my white companions in the group. However, on reflection on the many messages both from my family and from the working environments I have been in, I realised that this difference is real and one that should be embraced and not ignored.
Having been part of the Gateway Women community for some now, I know that my experience of involuntarily childless is not unique to my race, culture or background, but I do think that there is also an extra layer for me as a woman of colour, one that is often ignored and at times disregarded.
Whilst talking with some of my black friends (which is always a laugh when we get together), it was clear that a few of the main important differences we have experienced include:
- being seen as different as white people;
- being told not to bring shame on the family;
- having to work harder than our white colleagues to have any hope of being seen as equal;
- not having a voice in the workplace;
- giving your life to God (and therefore it’s all in His hands, it’s His will and He knows best).
Thinking about this has really brought up some emotional reflections for me. The times when I felt like the angry black women in the room because my manager dismissed the points that I had raised; the time I was ignored whilst standing at the till waiting to purchase an item of clothing; the time when I was asked to smile so I could be seen in a dark room, and the time when I and a group of my black colleagues were talking at work only to be told (as a joke) by a white manager that she thought that we were starting a rebellion. I also learnt from my friends that they’ve had experiences where white people would only talk to them when they felt safe to do so. One friend told me that as she was talking with her black friends a white lady she knew (who had ignored her for some time) approached and expressed her surprise at how articulate she was. From that moment on the white lady hasn’t stopped including my friend in her life.
Jody has observed that black women are not connecting with her and Gateway Women in the way that she would have hoped, which also has me wondering why this is the case especially as I, being black, enjoy wonderful conversations with her and have been helped so much both by her and GW.
Reflecting on my experiences and my friend’s stories I wonder how safe black women feel to talk to a white women about their problems.
There have been occasions when we have tried to explain the racial divide, inequality, unconscious bias and discrimination issues to our white colleagues, to have our experiences dismissed as us being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘reading too much into what happened’. It can be really difficult to explore our feelings about being victimized because of the colour of our skin when the very people we need to understand this reality are not willing to allow our truth to be heard. As often the only black woman in the room I often feel that I’m somehow meant to represent the black race – so where is my voice? My experience? And how can it be heard? But in a room where we are all women of colour? Then I’m Yvonne again.
Another aspect that I have not only witnessed, but also experienced as a black woman is the fact that we all have to be ‘saved’ and to live our lives for God.
I have always struggled with this concept of giving my heart or life to God (surely as He created me my life is His anyway?) especially after leaving the church some years ago. The idea that it’s in God’s hands and He will find a way (to whatever problems we are facing, or dreams we’d like to see fulfilled) never really rested well with me but I witnessed people ‘giving it all to Him’ in the reassurance that their lives would get better or that their problem would be resolved when they got up off their knees.
Once I had processed my grief and was in a place where I could talk about my childlessness I really hated hearing that ‘God knows best’. For me it felt like another example of my not being good enough as God didn’t see fit to bless me with children. I really don’t know what the church would make of my childlessness, but given that it’s common to hear that ‘God knows best’, or ‘God will find a way’ or ‘There’s always hope’ (possibly another one of my personal hate-orites), I can imagine that it must be extremely difficult for infertile, single or childless women to open up about their sadness, let alone ask for help to deal with the grief that can be all-consuming. I have since learnt that the notion that ‘It’s God’s will’ has given many women comfort as they understand it to mean that God has another plan for their lives other than motherhood, and that it’ll all be OK in the end. However, on discussing this with a friend who too held this view (she described it as her story to deal with her grief) she wondered why if it was not God’s will for her to be a mother, then why did He let her get pregnant and experience the joy and excitement of that only to lose her baby? And in my own case, why did he allow me to get pregnant when that was the last thing that I wanted, only to hate myself for having to make a decision that I wished to God that I never had to make?
The only thing that I can determine from all of this is that it adds to the complexity of us grieving if we even allow ourselves to be in that place. And that’s why I’m both proud and scared that I’ll be leading the world’s first healing weekend for childless women of colour in London on April 28/29th this year.