The invisible grief of the childless-by-circumstance woman


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!)

Childless and Childfree women role models

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.

17 Comments on The invisible grief of the childless-by-circumstance woman

  1. Jody,

    I am 47 and step mother to two but feel sad almost every day. I’ve tried to pretend my life is fulfilled but it’s hard to maintain the act for very long. My siblings have three children each and one has a grand daughter. I’ve never been one to open up at all about my feelings but there are days when I feel like staying in bed and crying. My work place has had a recent baby boom and it’s so difficult to pretend to be happy for them as my heart breaks. I can remember being in my late twenties and my grandparents putting me at the kids table. I didn’t realize it until much later what was happening. I’ve been so isolated in my grief for so long. I’ve never had a Facebook account due to the fact that I didn’t want to have to see what great times everyone was having with their children.

    It’s in my face at every turn. I’m so thankful to have found your blog.

  2. Today is Mother’s Day in the U.S. and being a woman of a certain age, everyone assumes I’m a mother and it serves as a reminder of how I’ve failed. Not so much for lack of trying but just because that’s the way it is. I could go on and on but I’ll save it. Everything you mentioned re double whammy struck a cord. I think there are a lot of us in that category but due to pride and stigma, it’s rare to hear someone admit that this is why they don’t have family. Sometimes it is NOT a choice. Thank you for acknowledging the reality some of us live with.

  3. I agree its a lonely place and having tried for years to have a child it gets on my nerves that on such chat sites its all about the last visit to the hospital or the last pregnancy test and its like being a wet blanket if you say excuse me is their anyone else out there like me.
    Who tried and failed and feels as if their is no place to bury my grief and even worse no one to talk to about it. My relatives seem to avoid the subject as if they prefer not to hurt my feelings and even worse many of them start to avoid me as what would we talk about as before they couldent shut up about their children now they yap on about their grandchildren and its all a bit look at me look how well I have done.
    Also this boasting seems to be a new thing and must have a lot to do with social media as I dont remember the older generation going on about their children so much and they had lots which I supose is why they never thought of it as such a big deal but this new generation are a tad over the top on the subject;

  4. Thanks Jody. At 48, I struggle extensively with being childless, partnerless and animal-less. I moved to a new community last year and it is a long slow road to making connections

    Your quote ‘I have described being a single, childless woman over forty as akin to being an exile in your own land’ was brilliant. Thank you.

    • I feel what it is that hurts the most is the fact that you feel like you have been excluded from normal society and feel cut off and different from others.

  5. There is a profound sense of betrayal for having “followed all the rules” and the end result is being single and childless. I used to be very pretty, and was kind, thoughtful, and intelligent. I worked hard to contribute to my family and the community. I worked with thousands of kids in my career, and was often told I was a role model. I feel like I spent my life caring for other people’s children, but never had my own. I am an artist and teacher and would have loved sharing that with my own children.
    It is not for lack of trying. I have dated and I am not a recluse, but men simply don’t seem interested in having children or starting a family.
    Everything came to a traumatic conclusion for me last year with an event that forever changed my views of childlessness. I realized that when you desperately want children, being coerced into taking birth control can cause immense grief. I never recovered, both physically and emotionally from being persuaded to use something that went against my wishes. The worst part is feeling that if I had not taken it then I would not be childless now. I was told it was the responsible thing to do. I was told I had no right to make that decision for my body, if the man didn’t want a child.
    Many of my friends are getting married and having children now, while I have been left behind in a very dark and lonely place of grief.

    • Hi Andrea – I’m so very sorry to hear that you are in “a dark and lonely place of grief”. I’ve been there and there is very little understanding from those who haven’t, on the whole. I would really recommend that you join our private online community where we can support you with this, and perhaps confidentially unpack more about the ‘birth control’ scenario you mention, and what a devastating impact that has had on you. You’re not alone with this, or in this. Hugs, Jody x

  6. Hi Jody,
    Thank you for another hit the nail on the head post. It has been enormously helpful as I unpick all my emotions surrounding children and the lack of them in my life. You are so right that our society holds family as THE WAY to live, rather than one of many potential ways – all of which can be worthwhile. As I find the courage to be more emotionally honest with myself, I am realising that, yes I had hoped that children would be part of my life, I can’t lie about that, but I also want other things too and I wasn’t prepared to do anything in order to conceive. But not having children is really hard in this society, as you say. People without children are judged or pitied – neither of which is nice, but we aren’t held in the same esteem as parents. I married late and was single for many years beforehand. I know firsthand that I am treated better as a married woman, than I was when I was single. Sad, but true. And when I am out with my niece and nephew, a warmth is exuded to me, that is not when I am without children. It is hard to feel excluded and peripheral. I met with a good friend who does not have children at the weekend. While she didn’t choose not to have children, she was never that passionate about it either and is happy with her life, but she still feels the social exclusion that we talk about and that there is a club and she isn’t part of it.

    • Hi Emily – thanks for commenting and I’m so glad that my writing ‘hit the nail on the head’ for you. I married young, and did not experience the disrespect levelled at single women until I became one in my forties, and then dealt with ageing, childlessness and singleness stigma all in one go! I realised that I too felt that I was ‘less than’ as I had internalised, through conditioning, exactly the judgments that we find so hard coming from others… it has taken a while, but I have sifted through much of this conditioning and rejected a great deal of it in order to reclaim my sense of value as a human being. Those who have never been in our shoes cannot see/feel what it’s like to be us on a daily basis, and your awareness of how differently you are treated now you are married and/or when you are out and about with your nephews/nieces is precious awareness. I really hope that together, those of us who are aware of this, can begin to articulate it in such a way that our partnered and childled friends can begin to see it too. Hugs, Jody x

  7. Hi, great blog, thank you. I am 46, have a partner and 2 lovely step children but no kids of my own. I have come a fair way with coming to terms with this, but the struggle is that as I get older, I have an increasingly strong desire to find a new compelling purpose, one that doesnt involve kids that I can put my life in to, and that I haven’t found that yet. It’s all feeling a bit pointless at the moment, and I’m worried about the trajectory for my life if this doesn’t change. I’m feeling increasingly invisible as a member of society. I want to feel that I am contributing something important with my creative energy.

    • Hi Kirstin – thank you! I hear you about the need to find a creative outlet for our energy – a sense of purpose. I went through a stage around your age of feeling that if I didn’t find a way to express my ‘mother’s heart’ in the world, that energy was somehow going toxic in my chest – it felt very physical. It’s what compelled me to start writing this blog, 6 years ago this week. I write about this extensively in my book, too, if you get a chance to read it. Childless stepmothering is no picnic either! Hugs, Jody x

  8. It still hurts when you feel you haven’t actually lost anything but yes, you did lose out, as you wanted the husband and children but never got them. Shattered dreams hurt just as much as physically losing something you did have, but in a different way.

    • Hi Joanne – yes, losing a dream is just as painful as losing something more tangible – perhaps even more so as we don’t have our loss socially validated and supported. It’s called disenfranchised grief, and it sucks! Thanks for sharing your experience. Hugs, Jody x

      • I know exactly how it feels to be like an outcast in society. Everywhere I look I see happy women with their husbands and children. I thought if you were a good human being, if you were kind and caring and never intentionally hurt anyone then life would be fair to you too. I was so wrong. When I look around I see everyone moving on with their lives, everyone besides me and I cant help but ask WHY. Why me, what is wrong with me that I can’t have what makes me happy. Now every time I have to attend a baby shower and listen to all the women talk about their children , see the excitement I the expectant mum I cant help but feel sad. Sad that I will never get to experience this, never get to feel my child grow in me, never get to hold my child. I ask God why but I get no answer. I feel like

        • Hi there Natasha

          Its always the way isn’t it that when you have lost out on something you feel its always there being shoved in your face at every turn as I used to feel like that about couples they were always in my face and I did feel that they would pop up in cracks in the pavement just to upset me! Lately it hasn’t been too bad as I did get someone eventually but there were times when I felt sad as well and that would turn to jealousy thinking why them and not me.

          Life is very unfair and no it does not discriminate against if you are a good person or a bad one with things like that and yes its unfair that those who don’t deserve things get them and the deserving ones don’t but I think a lot of it is luck of the draw really and very unfair.

          With regard to child centred events if all they do is upset you and make you feel you are missing out then do not go. You have my permission not to go as they are not mandatory. I wouldn’t go to weddings or couple centred events because when I did go all it did was upset me and make me feel I was losing out and I also quit facebook because of that as well as life is too short to put yourself through things that will upset you if you attend and its all so bloody unfair and the frustrating thing is that you cant do anything about it either!

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