Being ‘us’ is just too damn hard some days. We long for the transformation of motherhood, as much as for the delight of meeting our children. We are bored shitless of our inner worlds, of trying to ‘realise our potential’, tired of self-help books that promise to make it all better.
But without motherhood as our existential “Get out of Jail Free” card, we are thrown back onto ourselves and into what I think of as the lust for transformation. At its core, transformation, self-improvement and self-development all carry the same toxic message: “You’re not OK. There’s something wrong with you.”
Ten years ago, when I first came out of denial about the mess that my marriage was in, I read every self-help book I could lay my hands on. I’m a fast reader at the best of times, but that year, I must have read the A-Z of the genre. And I realised (rather smugly, I must confess) that most of them had, at their core, two messages: “Know Thyself” and “To Thine Own Self be True.” Well, that can’t be too hard, I thought.
But what these books also implied, and this is what made them books and not fridge magnets, was that there was something essentially wrong, dodgy and sub-standard about that ‘own self’ that needed fixing before it was really safe, wise or even legal to be ‘true’ to it. And so I bought the books, not the fridge-magnets, and launched onto an epic journey of self-development, of self-improvement.
We live in a capitalist culture that tells us that everything can be fixed. That if we make better decisions, try a bit harder, we’ll automatically have better outcomes. For those of us who’ve come up against the intractability of not having a family when you wanted one, we begin to realise that this ideology is bogus. That maybe the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes after all…
George Orwell wrote that “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” and sometimes it feels that in duping ourselves (individually and collectively) into believing that motherhood is the ‘answer’ to our problems we’ve swallowed a bit fat lie. And one that does disservice to all women. And that includes mothers, who aren’t meant to have any ‘problems’ as being a mother is so ‘fulfilling’.
It’s only since the pill became widely available in the mid-sixties that women were able to ‘think’ about becoming mothers, and delay that biological possibility whilst they pondered on it. And one of the inconvenient truths we’ve discovered is that creating a life of meaning is harder than it looks, whilst motherhood looks (from the outside) like a doozy.
Those of us who had tough childhoods and/or unhappy mothers may have thought “I don’t want that” and, unaware that we had the choice to be a different kind of mother, may have used careers, poor relationship choices and contraception as a way of avoiding the unprocessed disappointments and traumas of our youth. It takes turning 40 for many women to realise that they need to know where they stand on the whole ‘baby issue’. And what often comes up then is a fear of regret. Well, I’ll go further than that – an absolute terror of regret. A fear of a life that is going to consist of just ‘more of this’. More of the same. More of being ‘us’.
We long to belong, and we see that motherhood is a lifetime belonging sentence – it’s a decision that you can’t turn back from, and there’s a strange existential comfort in that. Once you’re a mother, you’re locked into your decision – which, if you’ve spent a long time vacillating about it, feels like a reassuringly restrictive freedom. Freedom from the eternal ‘what ifs’. Freedom from the freedom to wonder about it. Freedom from the fear of regret. Freedom from your inner dialogue. Ultimately freedom from yourself and from the human condition.
Well, that’s the rubbish we project onto it anyway. There is no freedom from the human condition. That’s why it’s called the human condition. Some mothers may be too busy ‘juggling’ to have time to think about the human condition, but they have a whole load of other things to worry about instead. And then their children leave home and they look back over the last 20 years of their life and think “what happened to ‘me’?”
And so, without motherhood, we are thrown back on ourselves. Our faulty, imperfect, dodgy and flawed selves that were responsible for all the crappy decisions that created the life we’re genuinely not that impressed with.
So, obviously, we need an upgrade. Because what else will we screw up otherwise?! So we buy some more books, start a new diet, give up this, start that and continue ‘working’ on ourselves. We go into therapy, join an ashram, go vegan, start internet dating, stop internet dating or just give up altogether and plan to spend the rest of our lives in our pajamas. Sometimes, checking out completely seems attractive, but what if that’s the wrong decision too? What if we get to spend an eternity wondering if we should have done something differently?!
Hang on a minute: what if there was a shocking, radical and counter-cultural way out of this? One that flies in the face of everything that the media tells us, everything that we have absorbed from the culture and made part of our inner world. One that fits on a fridge magnet:
So simple. But utterly radical.
I choose to accept my failures, my disappointments, my lack of clarity. I choose to accept my mistakes, my screw-ups, my regrets. I choose to accept my size 14 body, the muffin-top that generously embraces my waist, the lines on my face and the thread veins on my thighs. I choose to accept my divorce, my singleness, my low days and my failure to live up to my potential. I choose to accept myself in all my imperfect humanness.
And in choosing acceptance, something remarkable has happened and continues to happen. Blow me down if it’s not transformation by the back door!
- By accepting my failures, I am able to recognise my strengths (goodbye low self-esteem)
- By accepting my mistakes, I am able to seek and handle criticism (which has broadened my definition of myself and gives me new information when it comes to making decisions).
- By accepting my childlessness, I have been able to grieve for the dream of motherhood, and also to understand how much else was bound up in that goal that I didn’t want to take responsiblity for. I have grown up.
- By accepting that sadness and loneliness are part of life, not a personal failure, I’ve learned to enjoy my own company a lot more and meet and make new friends and connections
- By accepting that I don’t look like a supermodel in a bikini, I can finally be comfortable in my skin, which is a great feeling, and a pretty sexy one too.
- By accepting that some days it’s just all too much, I’ve discovered that self-care is not the same thing as self-indulgence
- By accepting my humanity, I can joyously and impishly celebrate the remarkableness of my individuality
We are the first generation of women who are discovering the space that not being a mother opens up. The childfree amongst of us chose this new way of life, whilst many of us are reluctant pioneers. Never before in the history of our civilization has our way of life been possible for so many women. It’s hardly surprising that there’s no road map, and precious few roads. It’s raw open country, a new territory. We are defining what it means to be a woman cut loose from the ties of biology. Our loving consciousness longs to find a home, but we have to build it first.
But before we can build a new house, we need to feel that we’re worth it. That we’re not failures. That our life is not a punishment for getting it wrong.
Morgana Morgaine here.
Wow, this was a hot topic! I just wrote a blog called “Senza Trucco” (trucho). A wonderful Italian turn of phrase meaning “without makeup”. It says it all! Women without pretense, satisfied with who they are, women living “what you see is what you get”–bare faced. There is great freedom in senza trucco and great power — coming back to self and ceasing endless self doubt and habitual living from the social training we all got in bucketfuls no matter where we live on the planet. So. here’s to self acceptance and living “senza trucco”! I call such women “borderless broads”!
Your blog posts are brilliant and some of the most well-articulated on the subject I’ve seen. Does Oprah know about you? Because she should! You say you don’t have enough #’s to bring a seminar to Scotland. What about the States? I imagine if more women knew about you – you could fill an auditorium – not that you should…as intimate is better.
So many women these days are so f–ked up when it comes to babies. Just looking at their FB profiles…they all post their babies instead of just themselves. Of course, new parents are ecstatic and want to show off…but even if they were on their way to career fulfillment, that is suddenly so much less important now. So many women I know got their masters or Ph.d’s…as if to fill the time before children. Kids come – and suddenly, they just want to be a stay-at-home mom. No one bats an eye. No questions asked.
So many of these women are in for a rude-awakening in just a few short years when their children are off to their own lives in high school….etc. Still, many of these women will find a way to live vicariously through their children…no real lives of their own. And no one will bat an eye. So many women are still very, very far behind in what their potential is. Children are not what your life is about. They are a part of your life – an important, huge part. But your life is your own, just as their lives are their own.
Conversations like these are the next step to waking up more women. NOT JUST CHILDLESS ONES. This is a conversation for all women.
You are a true pioneer. Through your pain, you were forced to dig to a place that has brought you a voice.
Thanks you so much, this blog really touched my heart. After dealing with infertility for 7 years now, we’ve decided this is the year we are moving on with our lives. I’m so glad I stumbled across your blog today, it was exactly what I needed to hear, Thank you!!!
Welcome Jessica – I’m glad you found us too 🙂
i read your article from my friend’s post om fb. (thank you omi)and quickly shared it.
this is what i included as my observation.
this is especially timely for me because
of the constant personal, familial and
societal reminders that there is
something inherently wrong with being
a queer, childless(by choice), african/
being childless has opened floodgates
of love for my nephews and other
children. this love originates from a
space of compassion and recognition, i
was once a child and from time to time
choose to see and move in the world
with childlike abandonment and glee.
it is not an easy road to travel
especially being back to the space
where womens’ pleasure is often
suspect and we are cautioned to
render all of ourselves invisible.
Hi Muthoni & thank you for commenting.
I love what you say about being childless having “opened floodgates of love” for your nieces and nephews.
And yes, as women we are culturally pressured into being invisible in any other role apart from wife and mother.
As someone who is neither (but who was a wife for a long time, so I know the social validation that comes with the role), I do think it’s vital that we push back against this conditioning.
thanks for this…
i just found your site tonight, and that last paragraph was just what i needed. i’d definitely put myself in the “reluctant pioneer” category. but, facing 35, i’m taking some deep breaths, accepting it all, and wondering how i can use all this freedom to my advantage.
really good to know i’m not “alone”.
Welcome to Gateway Women – I’m glad you found us so you don’t have to feel so alone with this anymore.
Part of ‘accepting’ it and then embracing your unexpected future is to allow yourself to grieve the life unlived. This is a process that takes time, and you’ll need to be gentle and kind to yourself, and find others to talk to, for you to heal.
Do comment on as many blogs as ‘speak to you’ as it helps all of us to hear each other’s voices, and you may find that other women will comment back to you.
I believe that greif is a dialogue, not a monologue, and connecting with other Gateway Women can be a huge part of that dialogue.
You’re not alone anymore. Welcome to Gateway Women.
thanks, Jody. happy new year!
Wow! I only just found your site. This is brilliant, so brilliant, I look forward to reading more but like Lolocandi says, you have put into words an existential place I have been riding the waves of for ages. Thank you.
Thank you. I needed to see I am not alone in this struggle.
What fantastic timing. As a 39th birthday looms on Monday you have put into words everything that has heen running through my head for such a long time. Whenever I read one of your blogs I breathe I a sigh of relief and say thank ‘God it’s not just me who feels this way!’ Thank you so much.
This is a great post! I personally love a good self help book every now and again, and I just finished reading a great one called “Borderless Broads, New Adventures for the Midlife Woman” by Morgana Morgaine. You can check her out and get the book right from her website, http://www.morganamorgaine.com/. It’s a great read for women, especially those like me who are middle aged. Instead of making me feel like it was going to make everything better, it gave me a sense of inner peace. Thanks again for the post!
Thank you so much – this is exactly how I feel.
Thank you for another great post. Good luck with the award xx
Thank you again Jody & bestest luck for your award nomination, it would be great to find out next week that you won it! Whilst reading this post I too was reminded of my mum…motherhood is certainly no guaranteed means to self-actualisation, a sense of meaningful life or happiness etc…my mum has never been happy in marriage & rarely in motherhood. I grew up with a mostly miserable (& often abusive) mother & one of the things I now struggle with during my infertility & ‘closing window’ age-wise on my chances of becoming a mother, is acknowledging that some of what has contributed to my situation is probably a certain amount of delay earlier on with TTC (before knowing about the endo – so now we are dealing with endo & advanced maternal age issues) because I was terrified of becoming like my mother!! My mum has always lived under the illusion that my father & I are largely responsible for her life not turning out how she’d have liked, esp. regarding career, but from my perspective this is really ‘hogwash’ even for a woman of her generation (at least in her circs. i.e.) & what I have observed for the past couple of decades as I’ve matured is my poor mum’s deeply ingrained lack of self worth & inability to accept herself or be repsonsible for herself/life. She has been unable to get what you describe above as “transformation by the back door”, so whatever the final outcome is for me re motherhood, I take your observations ‘on board’ as pretty darn wise things to bear in mind & aim to cultivate about my way of being in the world…this kind of approach is likely to help me live well regardless of whether I get to be a mum or not. xx
Thank you for another fantastic post. A very welcome read this Sunday morning when I’m having a bit of a struggle with it all. I think there is so much to be said for accepting ourselves and our lives as they are today in the here and now.
While I’m very sad not to be a parent myself I know motherhood isn’t the passport to happiness. I couldn’t help thinking of my own mother as I read your article and how unhappy she was. For her getting married and having children was where it all went wrong and she feels she missed out of having a great career because she had children. Unfortunately she tried for fix her own life through the lives of her children and as a result the family is completely broken. So yes, motherhood isn’t a route to self actualisation and peace evermore. It is just as you say, real peace comes from accepting yourself and your life just as it is. And perfect is soo boring. Imperfect is much more interesting.
It’s wonderful to see that you are up for an award as woman who has made a contribution to society. Well done. You deserve it.
Ah, yes – our own mothers…
How we ever thought that motherhood would ‘fix’ anything when we remember how tough it was sometimes for our mothers amazes me sometimes! I love the idea that ‘imperfect is more interesting’ – absolutely. And sometimes what we see as ‘perfect’ doesn’t look quite so ‘perfect’ from the inside either…
Sunday mornings can be a real bitch with too much time to think and feel lonely. But motherhood isn’t always the answer – it just raises a whole different set of questions!
Thanks for commenting
Great articulation of half formed thoughts I’d been struggling with. Thank you
Another great post. Thank you, Jody, for helping to clear the cobwebs out of my brain and probably the brains of many others. We get so tangled up when all we have to do is say “this is it, and we are okay with it.”
Yes, you’ve put your finger on it. And for the first time I feel like a pioneer and not someone who took a wrong turn.
Thanks Jody, you’re wonderful and I’d like to share the joy that filled me after reading your words with you and the other women here. You’re so generous and always open new windows and doors to beautiful landscapes that await our steps. You say: ¨there’s no road map, and precious few roads. It’s raw open country, a new territory.¨ Your words make me want to start walking to discover that territory. Thanks again and good luck.
Thank you! It means so much to me to know that my words have touched you. I’m glad they inspire you too.
I’ll see you on ‘the road less travelled’ then!
Great post. Applies to all childless people. Not just women. Food for thought. George Ps x
You deserve to win Jody! Good luck!
On the day you find out whether you’ve won the ‘Women’s Champion Award’ I’ll be giving a paper on my research at an ‘important’ academic conference. Doing this is no more than I am expected to do as an academic, but for me it represents an enormous stride in the tortuous journey out of the vacuum of vacant self-belief, sucked out of me by round after round of unsuccessful IVF; out of having a head so heavy I could barely lift it from the pillow to tell the world ‘where to go’, out of the unbearable sense of grief, failure, misery, loss, anger and worse than all of those, the suicidal pointlessness. With your help, and that of the other women in our tribe, I’ve mustered up enough interest in something other than my miserable self, and just enough conviction to croak ‘I do know what I’m talking about’ at my traumatised psyche, to be able to take up my responsibilties! You deserve to win. No doubt the other nominees do too. Whether you do or not – hope you can see me in your mind’s eye – mojo glowing and ‘knowing what I’m talking about’…!
I do hope the presentation went well!
I didn’t win the award – it went to another brilliant woman – Lynne Parker of Funny Women.
It was amazing to be nominated and good practice 🙂
Coming back to life after the grief of childlessness, and finding meaning again is tough work, and I salute and hug you.
Welcome back, welcome to your tribe and the world is lucky to have someone of your sensitivity, dignity and courage in it.
Love and hugs – let me know how it went!
Excellent blog Jody x
O yes, brilliant, thank you so much for putting it so clearly. Right with you!
Thank you so much. x