I see you sitting at home muting the rolling TV ads of ridiculously happy, rumbunctious, multi-generational families hilariously solving some Christmas dilemma in under 2 minutes. And yet somehow no one shouts at anyone else and the scene where someone makes painful assumptions about your life because you don’t have kids is missing. And no one asks you if you’d mind sleeping in a tent this year…
I see you scrolling through Facebook – like seductively picking an emotional scab – and gasping as your last sister-in-childlessness scanbushes you (and the whole social media universe) with a surprise sonogram. A real miracle baby Jesus for Christmas. Just great. I see how your hot tears are part rage that, after all you’ve been through together, it didn’t occur to her to let you know privately and, partly the anticipatory grief because, whatever promises she makes about how this ‘won’t change anything’ between you, it will. It always does. And so now, on top of everything else, you no longer have that one friend in your life who understands what it’s like to be ‘the childless one’.
I see you walking aimlessly around your home alone in the middle of the evening, too early to go to bed, looking for something although you’re not quite sure what it is, but maybe if you open and look inside the fridge one more time you’ll find the answer? No TV program is safe, no social media platform is trigger-free. It’s just babies, families, couples, grandparents, grandchildren everywhere. Even the news is all about ‘hard-working families’ and ‘families unable to get together this Christmas’. But for those of us who’ve been home alone all year? Nada.
I see you carefully and thoughtfully choosing, wrapping and mailing presents to other people’s kids even though you know that, in all likelihood, you’ll be lucky to get a Christmas card from them. And that you can whistle dixie for a thank you letter or even a text acknowledgement of your generosity. Does it make you a terrible person that you just want your love and care acknowledged, just this once? Do the kids even know who you are anymore, or what you once meant to their parents? Are you a fool to think that they give a shit about you anymore?
I see you selflessly supporting your partner with their children and all the stresses of managing their complex family dynamics whilst also fielding the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption that you chose not to have children. When in fact the choice you made was to be with the person you love and to make your peace with the grief of childlessness as they weren’t open to having any more kids. And yet somehow, even though you put on the bravest face you can, you’re still told that you need to ‘buck up’ and ‘make an effort’.
I see you sitting on that family Zoom call where your sister bounces a baby on her knee after her IVF worked out, the whole time whilst going on and on about how exhausted she is. And then her partner comes and takes the baby off her lap, affectionately rubs her shoulders and leaves her a cup of tea. And no one asks how it’s been for you since your last miscarriage brought the epic decade-long journey of ‘trying for a family’ to an end. Or how it is between you and your partner now that you’re both grieving and neither of you feels that the other is doing it right. Or about your fear that along with your finances, hope and sex life, childlessness and fertility treatments may have torpedoed your relationship too.
I see you living and working alone at home from your kitchen table in a starter-home that you’re still living in a decade later, whilst all the other apartments in your building have changed ownership at least twice as the 30-somethings get together, have babies and move out to somewhere bigger. Leaving you marooned in your apartment, harassed and distressed by the noise of other couple’s social lives, sex lives and babies, endlessly scrolling through of artfully-shot Instagram posts of elegant feet in chunky-knit socks Hygging alone with their hands around a mug of hot chocolate whilst you are Googling whether you can actually die of loneliness.
I see you struggling to manage the complexities of living with the chronic health condition or disability that contributed to your unchosen childlessness, even though you could have just got ‘whoops pregnant’ when you were younger. And the effort it takes to manage your daily life alone, at home, in a pandemic, with your fears of falling ill and worrying about how to manage that too if it happens. And yet others somehow still manage to make out that it’s ‘lucky’ that you don’t have children…
I see you biting back the tears at yet another thoughtless holiday ‘ice-breaker’ on your work video calls to ‘tell us something about your life’ or ‘what you’re doing for Christmas’ and being the only one who doesn’t have the socially acceptable badge of motherhood and children to talk about. You try to make a goofy cute comment about how you ‘work hard so that your dog can have a better life’, aiming to style it out as some sassy, confident childfree woman only to spend the rest of the day in acute shame, feeling like you’ve exposed your underbelly to wolves.
I see you volunteering for those extra shifts over the holidays, putting yourself in a public-facing role, even in harm’s way, rather than face the long gap between Christmas and New Year without speaking to or seeing anyone. And yet it goes unnoticed and unthanked by your colleagues with children, most of whom presume it is their ‘right’ to spend the holidays at home with them – I mean, it’s not like you’ve got kids, right? What do you need the holidays for?
I see you pottering about in your front garden, hopeful that the family next door will stop outside your gate, for just a moment of socially-distanced chat and then, when the mother does indeed stop, all she can talk about is her own mother in a nursing home and how much the kids miss her and how Christmas won’t be the same without her. “She’s not as lucky as you are with your health,” says the matriarch, bundling her rowdy brood into the back of the car. You turn back to your front door with a sigh as once, again, the space left by not having grandchildren claws at your heart.
I see you regretting that you didn’t go home to your folks last Christmas as you needed a year off the ghastly trifecta of judgement, pity and ‘helpful advice’. And how now you wonder when, if ever, you’ll get to see them again. You’ve spent Christmas by yourself before and had to keep it quiet because people were so horrified about what it said about your life, but now everyone’s talking about spending the holidays alone and still nobody thinks to ask your opinion. It seems that as Not A Mother you are considered to have zero adulting credibility.
I see you sitting watching your nephews and nieces opening their presents from their parents and grandparents, your siblings opening their presents from their spouses and children, the pile of wrapping paper getting higher and higher as does the tension in your body as you realise that, yet again, your neat and modest pile of anodyne gifts makes you feel like an orphan in your own family. You can’t say anything, because that might look like greed and how can you explain that it’s not about the presents, it’s about how hurt you are by your demotion in the family pecking order because you don’t have children… So you drink just a little bit too much and keep your fake smile plastered on for as long as you can before you claim a headache, take the overexcited dog out for a walk and cry your heart out. Again.
I see you raking over every past decision (even the good, honourable ones), every failed relationship (even the crappy ones), every path you’ve taken or not taken in your life (often for good reasons) that have led you to now, and to your childlessness. I see you putting yourself on trial with the harshest, most biased jury you can find, and finding yourself guilty of screwing up your life. Even though you did the best you could, with what you knew. So why do some other women who made very similar choices now have children?
I see you this Christmas.
You are childless and that wasn’t the plan; that wasn’t the dream.
But you’ve done nothing wrong by being childless and you are nothing wrong by being childless.
You were born childless and worthy and your childlessness does not take that away.
You have nothing to be ashamed of.
You have nothing to prove, nothing to ‘make up’ for.
You are worthy of love, acceptance & belonging just as you are.
There are millions of women like us around the world. There always have been, there always will be. We are part of the human family, not apart from it.
We belong too.
We have a role to play and a life to live and a heart to share.
We break and we heal.
But we cannot do it alone. We need each other.
A broken heart needs to be held with great tenderness in the mind and soul of someone who totally understands this pain – and only then can it start to heal.
I see you – a perfectly imperfect human soul. And I see the children in your heart that only your heart will ever know.
And my heart breaks again with you, holding yours in mine.
And together, we begin to heal.
The Gateway Women Online Community on MightyNetworks is open right through the holidays and is running many different live events, in all timezones, to support, entertain and companion each other - from Christmas Zoom lunches to evening singing & chanting. We have 35+ subgroups including for Childless Stepmothers, Childless Couples and Singles, for those dealing with Chronic Illness & Disability, a Biz Group for Freelancers/Entrepreneurs and many, many more. Come and join us. You're not alone in your childlessness. Finding my sisters around the world is how I healed and I want that for you too. With love, Jody x