Childlessness has always been around, mostly because of reproductive infertility, as there are still very few parts of the world where it is possible for a woman to choose a life other than motherhood and tosupport herself economically to live that choice. However, whilst we think of ‘social infertility’ or ‘circumstantial infertility’ as something very new, in the UK, we’ve been here before.
Whilst currently, one in five (20%) of women like me, born in the 1960s turned 45 without having had children (double that of our mother’s generation), this was also the case for those women born around 1900.
Known as the ‘Surplus Women’ (the ‘Crazy Cat Lady’ soubriquet of their times!) they found themselves childless-not-by-choice for two main reasons: firstly, because so many of them lost their current or future partners in the trenches and, secondly, because the Great Depression meant that many couples couldn’t afford to marry or have children. For them, being unpartnered also meant a life of unskilled work and/or poverty because, particularly for those from middle-class backgrounds, they had not been educated to earn a living. Apart from domestic service or working in a sweat-shop sewing round the clock, there were few options. Virginia Nicholson’s 2007 book, Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War is an astonishing read if you’d like more context.
When I first started writing this blog in April 2011, there was very little available on the internet or in book form about childlessness apart from a few (rather rabid) childfree-by-choice sites that scared me with their aggressive anti-parent rhetoric, and a tsunami of sites supporting women who were trying to conceive. Pamela Tsigdinos’s Silent Sorority and Lisa Manterfield’s Life Without Baby were the only blogs written by ‘infertiles’ that I could relate to, and through them I began to realise that although our routes to childlessness were different, the private and social pain we were in were the same. I hadn’t yet realised that what I was experiencing was grief. I mean, I didn’t actually lose anything did I?!
Being childless because of the absence of a willing or suitable partner – often termed ‘social infertility’, and earlier dubbed ‘childless by circumstance’ by Dr. Leslie Cannold – is to find oneself in what feels like a hidden subgroup of childlessness. In my recent TED talk (not yet released, I’ll blog when it goes live!) I shared the data that I also shared in my book, that:
a 2010 meta-analysis of childlessness data by Dutch academic, Professor Renske Keizer would suggest that 10% of women without children are childfree and 10% are childless for medical reasons including infertility – leaving a whopping 80% of women without children childless-by-circumstance.
Which brings us back to spinsters. Whereas ‘bachelor’ is a term that implies a future, ‘spinster’ is one loaded with tacit social failure – and reinforces the idea that it’s only by finding a (male) partner that a woman’s life can move forward to a truly ‘adult’ state. It’s as if all possibilities of happiness, of things turning out OK, are quashed by the word ‘spinster’. This is ironic because the term was originally benign and in medieval English meant a ‘spinner’, ie: one who span wool, and then later as the legal definition of an unmarried woman. Not only were they a ‘catch’ as brides, because they brought an income with them, spinsters were also able to remain unmarried and to support themselves financially which, as any reader of Jane Austen novels will know, was a radically new development. However, it didn’t take long for this potential independence to be cast as a problem and Victorian women who remained unmarried were seen as ‘finicky’ – a criticism today often levelled at unmarried women as being ‘too picky’.
These days, the term spinster also carries the unstated prefix: ‘bitter’ and implies a woman who is presumed to have been too stupid, unattractive, choosy or ambitious to form a long-term partnership during her fertile years. Yet, for many women this is not a situation they’ve actively chosen, but rather one that they’ve ended up in because they’ve made intelligent, honourable choices and behaved with decency and morality towards others. The Simpson’s character, ‘Eleanor Abernathy’ is a classic example of this, showing how this meme trivialises and stigmatises single childless women and makes them the butt of society’s joke, for what? For having a job? For supporting themselves? For paying taxes?!
One of the hardest things to bear about the stigma of being a childless (rather than childfree) spinster today is the sense of having ‘obeyed all the rules’ of our patriarchal culture yet to have ended up without the ‘prize’ (a husband and children). For example, many childless-not-by-choice women have been careful not to get pregnant as teenagers or at university; have studied hard; have broken up with partners deemed ‘unsuitable’ (according to their family, peers and women’s magazines); have worked hard to establish their footing in their careers; have actively sought out relationships with partners who would be good ‘father material’ and have given disciplined attention to their emotional, mental, physical and economic health. And the end result?
To watch their childhood peers who accidentally became young mothers (and who were used as ‘cautionary tales’ to warn them of the perils of unprotected sex) attain ‘respectability’ because they’ve attainted the status of mothers, whilst their childless peers are seen to have ‘failed’ because they haven’t.
It’s important to note that not every single, childless woman over forty is miserable and desperate for a mate! Plenty of women (and men) are happier single, although that preference is also looked down upon in a society enthralled to what researcher/writer Bella DePaulo refers to as ‘matrimania’. However, for those women who long for a stable long-term monogamous partnership leading to biological offspring, it can be a tough decade. Indeed:
I have described being a single, childless woman over forty as akin to being an exile in your own land.
Those who haven’t experienced it think I’m wildly exaggerating, but many thousands of readers of this blog and members of the private Gateway Women Online Community, and who self-identify as being in the ‘double whammy’ category, know exactly what I mean – and feel relieved that finally, someone is recognising the truth of their experience.
When young women today look at how older women without children are ridiculed, what possible message can they take from this except that equality is bunk? That despite what feminism says, having a male partner and family is still the only guaranteed route to having lasting life-long power and social standing as a woman? For example, where are the visible and acceptable role models in either real life or fiction of older childless women that aren’t also seen as a joke or a cautionary tale? Most people when asked will mention Miss Haversham, Bridget Jones (that is, unless, you’ve seen her latest outing in which she manages to have one of those Hollywood ‘miracle babies), Ann Widdecombe or Jennifer Anniston. Insane or neurotic fictional spinsters, a life-long celibate and a Hollywood film star whose empty uterus has earned more column inches that her films.
Personally, I choose Polly Higgins, Kim Catterall, Gloria Steinem and Maxine Peake as my role models, but then I’ve spent the last few years actively seeking inspiration and curate a gallery of childless and childfree role models on Pinterest. I’ve amassed a wide-ranging gallery of 500+ women both contemporary and historical, and if you ever feel that you’re alone, it’s always worth checking out. (However, please don’t think that because you don’t have children, you have to do something remarkable with your life: living a quiet and happy life as a childless women is just as remarkable, and just as hard – it just shows up less on Google!)
Many childless women now look to me as a role model as I am one of the very few childless women who is prepared to speak openly and publicly about my life, and because I refuse to be shamed by the fact that I am 52, divorced, childless, menopausal and live alone with my cat. And if I refuse to be ashamed by that, no one can shame me with it! That’s how taboos get broken – by individuals choosing not to buy into them and thus they lose their power.
Now I am proud to say that I am not alone anymore, but am part of a growing international tribe of childless-not-by-choice women who are speaking up, and speaking out about society’s shaming and othering of our human experience. Whilst there are still very few of us who speak for women who are childless-by-circumstance apart from myself, Sue Fagalde Lick’s blog Childless by Marriage and Melanie Notkin‘s reliably poignant and spot-on posts for The Huffington Post, I hope over the coming years we’ll see that change too.