In this interview from November 2020, Jody Day (founder of Gateway Women) joins Penny and Jo in an episode for the Australian childless/childfree podcast (un)Ripe. You can listen to the full episode here (transcript below). As well as talking about the early days of Gateway Women and how it grew from a blog to the global organization it's become, Jody also shares what goes on behind the doors of the amazing Gateway Women private online community, and the massive diversity of its 35+ subgroups covering everything from being a Childless Stepmother or Childless & Single to a group which is very dear to Jody's heart - Nomo Tribe. Nomo Tribe is the subgroup for those childless women who, like Jody, have come through the storm of childlessness are now actively and passionately engaged in their 'lives unexpected' - this is the part of childlessness the media doesn't talk about because it's much too challenging to the narrative that if you wanted children and you don't have them, you'll never have a good life! The conversation also busts some pervasive myths about male childlessness, male fertility, and the different ways that childless men grieve, and the support they need for that. Jody also talks about how she went to sleep as a feminist in her marriage and the hard (and transformative) reemergence from the pronatalist dream she experienced as a single, childless, middle-aged woman. She also touches on what she calls 'the Mother Theresa Syndrome' - the subtle trap that many of us fall into believing that our Plan B has to be something 'big' to be worthwhile, which is just pronatalist bullshit in disguise! She talks about how these days, internally, she feels what is termed 'adapted childfree' in that she no longer feels that anything is fundamentally missing from her life by not being a mother, but that she still calls herself 'childless' out of respect for the grief journey it took to get to that place, and also to respect the very different experience of those women who have actively and consciously chosen not to be mothers. She also talks about reclaiming the word 'crone' (it means the crown-ed one, the elder) as part of her new project for the next decade: Conscious Childless Elderwoman. You can find out more about [un]Ripe at its website here, or on Instagram or Facebook. And if you're based in Australia/NZ, you might also like to check out the work of Judy Graham and Sarah Roberts, who are both locally-based childless counsellors and now licensed Gateway Women Reignite Weekend facilitators.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
PENNY: Hi, I’m Penny.
JO: I’m Jo. Together we’re (un)Ripe. We’re two Australian women.
PENNY: Actually, I’m a Kiwi.
JO: I’m Italian. We’re on the other side of 40 and we’ve never had kids. We’re not experts. We’re just like you. We’re trying to understand our place in the world to find a community of women who were childless by circumstance or child free by choice.
PENNY: We’re here to talk about IVF, being childless and single, childless and married or in a relationship, abortion, losing friends to motherhood, and everything that people just don’t talk about on these subjects. Who knew how hard it could be to find a group to talk about this stuff? We are a tribe hidden in plain sight. We’re going to talk about it all.
JO: The good.
PENNY: The bad.
JO: The freedom.
PENNY: The loneliness.
JO: The judgment.
PENNY: And the possibilities when you’re a childless woman.
JO: We want to make these conversations part of the mainstream.
PENNY: We invite you to join us. In breaking news, (un)Ripe has spoken to Jody Day, patron saint of childlessness, author of Living the Life Unexpected, founder of Gateway Women. Therefore, in this episode, we bring you more Jody. Please enjoy this special episode brought to you by (un)Ripe, especially for you.
JO: A special episode, actually, hey?
PENNY: It actually is. I tell you what, this is a big fan girl moment for me. I did share with Jody that I was a massive fan girl for her. I also shared that it was the first time that I ever went to Google – I know Jo’s talked about Googling what’s your life purpose. Me, I Googled who could I relate to, and it was Jody Day. Early on in my experience with what I found out about stuff online, Jody Day came up. So, it was massive for me to be able to have the conversation with her.
JO: Jody is the founder of Gateway Women. Way before that, she used to write a blog. One of the first articles that she wrote was then picked up by The Guardian and they ran with it.
PENNY: Actually, the very first blog.
JO: The very first blog.
PENNY: Can you believe? That’s incredible.
JO: Wow, that’s impressive.
PENNY: She said that she was overwhelmed with the number of women who responded to her saying, “You have spoken the words that were exactly how I felt.”
JO: That was in 2012 when she started her blog. She then went on to do many things. She wrote a book, which was called Rocking the Life Unexpected.
PENNY: Jody Day, the patron saint of childlessness. I think it’s a great way to be able to explain Jody because pre-2012, she had a load of people who came and reached out to her, but no one had been a spokesperson and was very visible in the public on this topic. Jody really became that person.
JO: Jody has been the woman who has really brought a lot of this to the forefront. I just joined Gateway, it’s for women who are childless by circumstance, and who are no longer trying actively.
PENNY: Later on, as it progressed with Gateway, Jody was actually asked to do a TED Talk. Now I did watch this early on and was completely – before I met you Jo, back maybe a year and a half ago when I was looking for things – and I was blown away because I thought I’m listening to all of those things that she covers. Now I was super moved by it and 100% related to what she was saying. I was like, oh my God, I want more. This is exactly what I’m going through. Absolutely fantastic to see it being done on a TED Talk.
JO: Back in 2013 Jody was also honoured by the BBC’s 100 Women. They did this series and it focused on women in all industries. There were women in politics, Helen Clark was obviously one I knew, media, sports, there was this incredible ballerina, there were scientists, there were women in education, the church, everything.
PENNY: Do you know what, the timing of this though, for her to be listed and have BBC identify her a year after this blog was written and then shared by The Guardian. This is a phenomenal woman who has been able to speak so eloquently for the childless woman.
JO: Incredible. And now, here’s Jody.
Jody: Hello Jo, Hello Penny.
PENNY: I was trying to explain to my mum, because it was a good example, I was like, “We’re so excited, we’ve got Jody Day coming in. We’re going to have this conversation with her this weekend.” And she’s like, “Oh, so who’s Jody Day?” You’ve previously been described as the stateswoman of childlessness, and then someone has said that you are the patron saint of childlessness. I thought, that’s it, that’s how I describe you going forward. You are the patron saint of childlessness.
JO: That’s perfect. How do you feel about that?
JODY: Not worthy.
PENNY: How did you decide that you needed to start a community?
JODY: Like so many things – by accident, and also by need. It was 2010 or 2009 when I came out of denial about my childlessness. A lot of the reasons for childlessness are part of my story. Infertility, circumstance, ambivalence, it’s all mixed in in my story. After I got divorced at 39, I still thought I had time to meet someone and do IVF. That’s as much as I knew about it, apart from the fact that it always works, because that’s all I ever saw. Not true, by the way, if anyone’s listening. Asterisk, not true, fails 75% of the time. With older women, women over 40, kind of 98% of the time, just so you know.
JODY: I came out of denial about my childlessness at 44 and a half, really late. I was really hanging on in there. Although I’d sort of been grieving for a few years without really knowing what was going on. So it’s like there was part of my unconscious was coming to terms with it, or rather accepting it, and part of it was just not having any of it. There came a moment when the ‘this is really your reality’ came home to me. When my second and most serious post-divorce relationship broke up, and I thought, okay, that’s it.
JODY: Then I spent two years trying to talk about it to friends, trying to talk about it to therapists, trying to talk about it to anyone who would listen, and nobody would listen. All I would get back are what I later came to learn from the child-free community are what’s called bingos, which are these repetitive, knee-jerk responses that you can even pay to get from therapists. “Well, if you really wanted a child, you would’ve tried harder, you would have one of your own, why didn’t you just adopt, children aren’t all their cracked up to be, here have one of mine, you dodged a bullet,” repeat. Watch my TED Talk for those who haven’t watched it, where I go into some of them.
JODY: I was really silenced. I’m quite young looking for my age and people were always telling me I still had time. I was 45, and I’m like, I’m not really trying to talk about hope, I’m trying to talk about what it’s like after hope. And I discovered that nobody would let me talk about it. So I was really struggling, really, really struggling, and felt increasingly alienated from the world around me. I was 45 at that time. I was born in 1964, so I’m part of the British cohort where actually one in four of us are childless. I didn’t know that, but I didn’t know any of them, and I didn’t know where they were.
JODY: I do now, but a couple of years before I started my blog, I was kind of writing about it on a personal blog, and I was writing about a lot of other things as well. I started my training to become a psychotherapist, and then I just thought, actually I’m going to start a blog just about this. So the first blog for Gateway Women was April 2011, so that’ll be a decade ago next April. Within a day, I got my first piece of PR, and comments started coming in from all over the world from women saying, “How do you know the exact words in my head? I thought I was the only person having these thoughts.” I sat on my desk, on my own, in my flat in London, just with tears running down my face because finally I knew that I wasn’t alone in these thoughts and feelings.
JODY: So that was the beginning of Gateway Women. It started as a collection of voices; I was blogging, they were commenting. Through that I got to meet other bloggers. Nearly all of the bloggers were, actually pretty much all of the bloggers, at that time were women who had come out of infertility and treatment without a baby. But women who were childless for the very many reasons you can be childless were still absent from the space and to a large extent they still are. Childlessness by circumstance, which accounts for 80 percent of women who reach midlife without children, is still massively under the radar, both within the childless community and in the general population. So, it started as a conversation.
JO: As Jody says, 10 years ago when she started her blog, she didn’t know where her tribe were. As soon as she started sharing her story though, they came out. At (un)Ripe we’re finding the same thing happening now, a decade later, and even young women in their 20s and 30s still feel alone when it comes to sharing their childless stories, and that’s where Gateway Women was formed.
JODY: Like everything with Gateway Women, it was just an experiment. I describe myself as a social entrepreneur and I’ve always worked in the entrepreneurial environment. So it comes very naturally to me to just have a go at that. I’m quite geeky. I have an unusual mix of skills, a geeky psychotherapist and writer. Google had just launched its Groups at that time, and I thought, okay, I’ll just see. I created an online community, actually whilst avoiding a family Christmas in 2012.
PENNY: Fair call.
JO: I’ve done that.
JODY: “I’ve just got to go and do some work,” – and created a community, and it just grew really, really quickly. At first it was almost like an extension of the kinds of conversations we were having on the blog, and it was a space to do that which was not public, because I never wanted to create a group or a community on Facebook. I think I was a little bit ahead of the curve in my kind of, “Hmm Facebook.” I consider Facebook when you’re grieving your childlessness actually as a form of self-harm for a lot of childless women. A lot of childless women need to get off Facebook for their grieving journey, or at least learn how to control it so it’s not constantly triggering them.
JODY: Women flocked to this new space and it quickly became quite overwhelming to manage it. Because one of the things I did from the very beginning was I did an ID check on everyone who joined. So there was this sense of safety. I’ve discovered it’s been necessary to do that with all areas of Gateway Women, because it’s interesting, sometimes people just join these things out of curiosity and sometimes worse. So creating a really safe space, which is something that’s really important to me, is something I did. That had a very powerful effect. I guess because I spent a lot of time in 12 Step groups, my marriage broke down because of my then husband’s addiction issues, and I have to also take responsibility for my co-dependency issues. We were a perfect little matched pair there. So I knew how to hold a safe space, and I really brought that into the new Gateway Women community.
JODY: It grew and it grew and it grew. There were lots of spinoff groups. We have 35 subgroups all within our community. We can host Zoom meetups, we have cafés, we have all kinds of things happening within our community, and it’s just going through the roof. We have a childless stepmothers subgroup, we have a childless Christian subgroup, we have a healing from trauma subgroup. We have something which is very dear to my heart for the stage where I’m at, which is called NOMO Tribe. NOMO Tribe used to be a separate group but it’s now part of this. NOMO Tribe is for those women who are through the storm of grief and embracing the life unexpected.
JODY: That’s for women who are really on, “I’m feeling okay about my childlessness and now what?” You can still have griefy days and griefy moments. You can still be sideswiped by grief but on the whole your psyche isn’t taken over by the process anymore of coming to terms with this. It’s become your reality, it’s become your normal. Childlessness is a life-long course thing. It’s not an illness you get over. I will always be childless and there will be things that I don’t experience in life because of that. But it doesn’t mean it’s a lesser life or a worse life, it’s a different life.
JODY: There’s an awful lot of compassion and wisdom in that, which is incredibly important. It takes huge courage to face up to your own childlessness, and then to come into something and start being open about it. You said you’re meeting a lot of younger women, millennials, who are having that same experience of having had nowhere to talk about it. To come into a safe space and be met with love, compassion, kindness, humour, to meet role models who are further on than you who can inspire you to meet other women who are at the same stage as you. I’m so proud of it.
JODY: It’s an incredibly empowering space. Over the years, I guess it’s been weird for me, because I had created it to reflect me and my values, and that’s become like the culture of Gateway Women. Now, I see members learn from me and from each other, those values of kindness and inclusivity and compassion and self-compassion.
JO: What a wonderful achievement.
JODY: It is. I’m pretty proud of it. I’m proud of every single member. It’s amazing, some members have been in there since the beginning, since 2012.
JO: How many members do you have?
JODY: At the moment we’re about 700, but we’re going through a big period of growth, especially having these incredibly dynamic subgroups, which then get led by members, which are very powerful. One of the strongest ones is called Single Life, which is for our single and childless members, because that carries an extra layer of stigma, and sometimes it’s an area that women who are coupled can unintentionally bingo. When a woman who is single and childless tries to talk about her struggles, it’s not uncommon that someone with a partner might say, “Well, having a partner isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” When in actual fact, that’s the same as a childless woman saying, “I’m really struggling with my childlessness,” and parents saying, “Well, children aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.”
JODY: It’s not empathy. Because we’re under the patriarchy, being partnered is also more valued than being unpartnered. There are these internalized sexist beliefs that we carry that we have to rootle out of ourselves. Until I became single, when I got divorced at 38, I had been in long-term relationships really since I was 15. I was devastated by how people treated me as a single and childless middle-aged woman. It totally blindsided me. I had no idea how much “status” in society was actually connected to being partnered. It’s not a huge amount of difference, a little bit of difference between being partnered and married. But compared to the difference between that and how people view you if you’re single is not really worth the distinction.
JODY: I thought that the status was my status. I discovered that, actually, it was his status that was conferred upon me because we were married. Once I became an unmarried middle-aged woman, I was like social plankton. I used to joke that the last invitation I got was to a dental check-up. My social life completely and totally dried up.
JODY: It’s just the assumptions people made about me. I was single for six years. I’ve been with my partner for four years now, but those were probably six of the most powerful years of my life, those single years, and really opened my eyes. I think it re-radicalized me as a feminist as well, because I went to sleep in my marriage. I met my then husband when I was 21, we started dating when I was 22. I was with him until I was nearly 38. And I went to sleep. I went into a pronatalist, patriarchal sleep, and those single years really woke me up. Like you, Penny, I am determined never to forget what that feels like, and to be a voice for my single members and my partnered members.
JO: I said it before, childlessness is a feminist issue. What does that mean? Well, just like parenting falls largely on the shoulders of women, so too does fertility. If we try to get pregnant and don’t, it’s us women who are back at the doctor. We take the hormones, we take our temperatures, we think about our periods. Childlessness and fertility are seen as a female problem, even though medically, infertility is equally shared between men and women.
JODY: Yes, childlessness is seen as a female problem. Infertility is a female problem, even though within the medical world of infertility, 30% of fertility is a female issue, 30% is a male issue, and the rest is unexplained. It’s very much both sexes have to deal with fertility issues, but yet it’s still always seen as a female problem. Childlessness by circumstance is seen as a female problem again, particularly if singleness is involved. “Oh, she’s too picky, oh she did…” It’s all about her behaviours.
JODY: It’s never seen that we’re living through an extraordinary moment in our social history, where the choices available to men and women have changed so much, that a lot of these decisions are taking place later in life, which can lead to infertility amongst couples. But also, we’re not living in Jane Austen times anymore. A woman doesn’t have to get married at 21 in order to not have to become a governess, or a prostitute, or throw herself under a horse cart. We can earn our own livings, and actually we are required to. Having a job is no longer optional. We’ve got this really old patriarchal pronatalist ideology running through our unconscious and our collective unconscious in a modern world where so many places it doesn’t fit the reality of modern women’s lives.
JO: Do you think that part of the reason why fertility is never an issue that’s dropped on men is because essentially for the most part, a man can keep getting a woman knocked up until the day he dies at 105?
JODY: That’s actually a myth. Male fertility declines at the same rate as female fertility. Not quite as dramatically, not quite as early, but it does happen. A lot of men over 50 are not able to have children anymore. The outliers like Charlie Chaplin or Rod Stewart, these are outliers. The reason they’re miracles and they’re in the news is because it’s really unusual. One of the reasons also for the very high rate of devastating miscarriage in women in their 40s is because their husbands are in their 40s or 50s. If you want to donate your sperm to a fertility clinic, they’re not going to take it from you after the age of 30.
JO: I’ve been schooled. I had no idea. Thank you.
JODY: I know. It’s a very potent myth, which also takes away the grief of men. Because if a man is trying to talk about his sadness at not having children, he’ll be told, “Don’t worry, mate. You can still have them.” Well, he probably can’t, or if he did, because his sperm, the chromosomes within it are starting to degrade, they’re more likely to lead to a miscarriage. So he might be able to get his female partner pregnant but that might not be a viable pregnancy. It’s a potent fertility myth. Some men can, but most of them can’t.
JO: I have done a lot of reading and listening and watching of things since we’ve started this project, and I have become very aware of just how much this impacts men as well through the grief stories that I have read and listened to. There’s some quite prominent men in the UK who speak to this. Is it Robin Hadley?
JODY: Robin Hadley, my friend-
JO: He’s wonderful. He speaks so eloquently about it and he’s great to listen to. But I do see that there is a very big gap. We talk about how we’re not seen, but I think men have got another level on this one, on not being heard. Particularly because of what we’ve now learnt as a potent myth, that they are still able to have children.
PENNY: Because of the patriarchy, because of that level of masculinity that is still taught to boys and men, it would be a subject that would be very difficult for men to broach. Because there’s so much tied into their sperm.
JODY: They’re also classically conditioned, men are conditioned that their vulnerability is a weakness. They’re conditioned not to talk about these things and even not to feel them, even to deny them to themselves. My experience over the years of getting to know and working with childless women, I’ve often seen a pattern happen, and I write about it in my book, as the woman, this is in a heterosexual couple, as the woman starts to get some relief from her grief and has the support, the Gateway Women community, or me, or coming to a workshop, and she starts to feel a little bit better, this is often the moment that her male partner starts to fall apart, because unconsciously he’s been holding his grief back in order to be strong for her. When he sees her getting some support, he can just fall apart.
JODY: This can be very destabilizing within the partnership because the woman can say to him, “I’ve been on the floor for six years, and you’ve been out with your mates and going to work, and you’ve been fine. Now I’m ready to reengage with the world, and you’re a mess. Where was all of this when I needed to see your feelings? I felt so alone in my grief.” This is a very common pattern. Men, they also need a different kind of support than an organization which is run by a woman, which is centered on women’s needs, can offer. It needs to be a male-led and a male-centered thing, which is why I so support Robin Hadley’s work, and also my colleague Michael Hughes in Australia at Married and Childless. He has an amazing Facebook group.
JO: We’ve learned a little more about male sperm, and now another community, gay and lesbians. I recently heard a queer woman talk about how she felt forgotten by the childless community as though, well, if you don’t have any sperm around, then that’s just your lot. Well, it’s 2020, and things aren’t that cut and dry. Lesbians face exactly what heterosexual women do. It’s the hormones, the ticking clock in inverted commas, and the desire to be a parent.
JODY: Shock, horror, gay, lesbian, and bisexual women are women. They have exactly the same desire to partner and have families as the rest of us. I think it’s a sign of the homophobia, the sexism, and the pronatalism in our society that because their sexuality is different, it’s not at the service of men, that they’re somehow not real women. Therefore because they’re not, “real” women, they won’t have this desire to have a family in the same way that women who choose, child-free women are somehow seen as not quite real women because of that choice. This is all underpinned by the unconscious condition of pronatalism.
JODY: Gateway Women has a private subgroup, our LGBTQIA+ subgroup, which is centered on women who identify with those sexualities and is run by them. They are othered in the discourse around childlessness. They are never mentioned. To be childless not by choice, either by circumstance or infertility, when you’re a lesbian, or gay, or bisexual woman is just as painful. The othering within their own communities, within the lesbian community, to use a very bald term, it can be just as hard to be childless within that community in all of the sense of being different from your peers and being left out of things, and being seen as different. It’s just as difficult with its own flavour. But, the othering of people with diverse sexualities is used to go, “Oh, but it won’t be as bad for them.” It’s another bingo.
JO: In the decade since Jody started her blog, the childless and child-free community has really gained its voice. There’s the Gateway Community platform of course, and World Childless Week, and private Facebook groups like the (un)Ripe one, where women are getting together with our sisters to talk about our frustrations, our pain, our grief, as well as our joys. Jody reminds us however that there’s still a way to go.
JODY: I’m proud to say that I think our voices are getting stronger. World Childless Week, which is an amazing initiative to bring us all together, is really starting to amplify our voices around the world and bring us together. It still shocks and saddens me that the therapeutic profession and the medical profession are so slow to catch on to this. All of the organizations and initiatives like Gateway Women, and like yours, are all self-funded and self-directed. There is no charitable governmental or donated support. Definitely, the voices are getting louder, and I agree with you that the millennial generation, the generation that has grown up being much more open about their private lives are definitely making a louder noise. I’ve also seen a big increase in what’s called social infertility.
JODY: In terms of the number of women joining my community, there are many, many more now who are childless because they don’t have a partner or their partner doesn’t want children, or their partner has already had children. I’m really seeing a huge increase in that. I also think that of the millennial generation, I’m seeing a big increase in awareness around the ethics around bringing a child into a world facing climate breakdown. I think in the next generation we’re going to see much more voluntary childlessness, what’s called childfree, but not in a “Oh yeah, I’m just so great, I don’t want to have kid, blah, blah, blah,” but actually taking a really ethical and painful personal choice, which to me is a form of childlessness, but it’s complicated.
JODY: The idea that there’s this dichotomy of childless and child free is not borne out by my experience. Of the many women I’ve spoken to, many of us exist somewhere on that spectrum, and it moves. I would say that in my sensibility now, I’m probably what’s called adapted childfree, as in I feel as at peace with my childlessness as I would imagine I would feel if I had chosen it. However, I can’t live both those lives so I can’t compare them. But it is not a painful identity for me anymore to be childless. I wish there was less shame, but I’m still seeing just gallons and gallons of women coming into this space feeling so much personal shame and that breaks my heart.
JO: I can’t believe that that is still something that women are facing in our society. I’m shocked by it.
JODY: Okay, this is an amazing book written by a Melbourne author called She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life. It’s by Donna Ward. It came out in March this year. I interviewed her on my blog. This is an astonishing book about living a life as an unmarried and childless woman, both of them not by choice. She’s now 65, she’s also an absolute blast. She really speaks to what it is to live that experience in the Australian context. I highly, highly recommend this book.
JO: The single childless experience isn’t one that I’ve had, but I have had the married childless experience. I’m lucky not to have heard too many bingos over the years, but I know that people talk about me behind my back. I’m not being paranoid, I’m Sicilian. Let me explain. When I was younger, there was a relative who was married, and he and his wife didn’t have kids for around 10 years. Of course nobody said anything to them, but behind their back, it was all, “Oh, there must be something wrong with her.” So of course I know that the same was said about me, it’s cultural. I’ll admit though, I could care less about what people say behind my back. But I’m really grateful never to have heard many bingos to my face.
PENNY: There are bingos and there are, social occasions I think, where your time is not considered as important as a family with children would be. Your status is definitely not the same.
JODY: I think you’re not seen as a fully grown-up person. If you are partnered or married, there is a sense that you’ve ticked one of the big grown-up boxes. It’s a really, really hot issue, and it’s one that’s really worth discussing. I’ve defined it as pronatalist privilege. That privilege is the status that accrues to you because you are a parent, that gives you a more valuable voice in society. You only have to see #asamother, that is pronatalist privilege at work. So what am I, dog food? Is my opinion worth nothing? “No, as a mother I feel empathy.” I’m thinking, crikey, you had to give birth to feel it? What were you like before?
JODY: We all carry privilege of various kinds and it’s about being prepared to have the hard conversations, and do the research to understand where our blind spots are and where we might be walking on the feelings sometimes of people very dear to us without realizing. It’s our responsibility to educate ourselves about what we don’t know, educate ourselves about childless men, about the experience of our LGBT brothers and sisters, about women who are for example experiencing childlessness who themselves were adopted, or what the experience is like for women of faith, or women of color, which is another layer of experience. All kinds of weird shit comes into play around the fertility particularly of black women of African descent because then there’s an unconscious slavery rhetoric going on that black women are all incredibly fertile and they breed like rabbits and all kinds of horrible things that get placed on them.
JODY: Childlessness is an intersectional experience within feminism and going back to your conversation earlier about childlessness and feminism, childlessness is completely absent in the feminist discourse. Child free, choosing not to have children is in there, delaying motherhood, and care and motherhood and the experience of motherhood is in the feminist discourse. Childlessness is absent apart from one British academic called Dr Gayle Letherby who’s written a few papers on it. Apart from that, blind spot.
JODY: When you consider that one in four, or one in five, or one in six, depending on your country, so an average of one in five women are reaching midlife without children in developed countries, and 90% of them are childless not by choice, and 80% are childless by circumstance. For this to be missing from fourth-wave feminism, it just shows how big the blind spot is. Pronatalism goes across everywhere in society. It goes across the medical profession, it goes across the therapy profession. When I was training to be a psychotherapist, we were 25, 24 of us women. There were three women without children in that group, one was childfree, and two of us were childless. One was childless and silent about it, and there was me, no longer silent about it.
JODY: I called out my colleagues on various pronatalist beliefs that they had, even though I didn’t quite have the terminology yet. I remember once, I was training as a child and adolescent psychotherapist, and I faced a lot of prejudice that I couldn’t possibly understand children because I wasn’t a mother. One of our amazing, really, really compassionate teachers was also childless, and they were saying all these things in front of her. I noticed that even she wasn’t pushing back against it. So, I went to my college principal, and I was actually thinking of doing a PhD in this subject, in pronatalism in the therapy room.
JODY: My college principal said, “This is a huge problem. We’re seeing it all the time.” We didn’t even get a weekend’s training on it. I said, “This needs to be part of the training.” You do diversity training, childlessness is a diversity topic. We have to wake each other up about this. It has to be included in the diversity agenda in workplaces, in all kinds of training where we’re going to be helping people. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’m only one woman and I can’t do everything. I don’t have time to do that PhD. We don’t have the resources to conduct those kinds of researches and have those kinds of complex conversations.
JODY: You need to be in a really good place when you do it because you will immediately get pushed back with the pronatalist bingos, like “Really? Childless women, does that really matter? Why should we care about that?” So you’ve got to be really well-resourced emotionally, practically. You talk about, what is the future of Gateway Women, well the future of Gateway Women is I really want to do more campaigning. I want us to have a voice. I want people to start seeing that we’re here, we’re not going away, and we matter, and the way we’re being treated is cruel.
JO: Jody self-published her book, Rocking the Life Unexpected in 2013, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign through Gateway Community. But, it wasn’t long before she came to the attention of Pan Macmillan. They republished her book with a new name, Living the Life Unexpected.
JODY: They said, “Well, Rocking the Life Unexpected, that sounds like a cradle.” For me, it was like, rocking the life, and they were like, hmm, so that’s when it became Living the Life Unexpected. The second edition is fully updated, all the stats are updated. There’s a lot of additional information in chapter 4, people call it the grief chapter, and also chapter 12 which is very dear to my heart, which is all about aging without children. This is another area that as I move into my young elderhood at 56, I am an apprentice crone, I’m also very interested in creating more resources going forward for those of us who are moving into the third act of life, without grandchildren or the prospect of grandchildren. In a society that only has one word of respect for older women, which is grandmother, how do you create a powerful, radical, conscious identity for yourself as an older, childless woman?
JO: I was trying to find that thing that was “just as important.” So, if I’m not going to be a mother, what the hell am I going to do with my life that is going to be as significant? Did you experience that?
JODY: Yes, and that can lead to, I call it the Mother Teresa syndrome, because it can lead to this idea that you have to do some extraordinary, enormous thing. What helped me to deconstruct that was when I considered what I needed to put on the scales to balance with motherhood. What I thought I was going to do, this was while I was still grieving, I didn’t really understand yet what was going on, was I was going to sell or give away all my possessions, and I was going to move to Laos. I was going to go and live in this monastery, an orphanage for children, and I was going to devote my life to these orphan children.
JODY: I was going to be very thin, I’d have these long gray plaits, then when I died, I’d be on an amazing thing covered in flowers, on flames, floating down the Mekong Delta. And I’d have this tiny little passage in the South Sea China News about this extraordinary eccentric English woman who devoted her life to these children. I would indulge this fantasy. Then one day I realized that, actually, I wasn’t thinking about the orphans at all.
PENNY: It’s so specific though.
JODY: An entirely narcissistic fantasy about me becoming this extraordinary woman of value in other people’s eyes. When I clocked that, I thought if that’s what I think I’d have to do with my life to put on the scales against motherhood and see some balance, how over-valued in my mind and in society has the idea of motherhood become? That was a real waking up point for me. Now, I’m not devaluing motherhood, and I’m not devaluing the importance of mothers to children. I’m talking about the social status of motherhood. Didn’t have the word pronatalism yet, I didn’t know what it was I was getting a glimpse into. But it was a really important glimpse, and that’s when I began to question everything I felt about status and what it took to be a person of value, and realized that I needed to value myself first most of all.
JODY: What you do with your life without children is as unique. Each of us who is childless is as unique as a childless woman as we would have been as mothers. Some of us are going to want to do big public, extraordinary things with our lives, and others are going to want to live quiet, peaceful, happy lives, and both are equally of value. We don’t have anything to prove because we’re not mothers, because there’s nothing wrong with not being a mother. We haven’t done anything wrong, we are nothing wrong, we have nothing to be ashamed of. When you get that, then you realize actually what you do with your life is your business.
JO: So, Jody, what’s next for you? The pandemic’s over, it was just a dream. It was just a bad dream.
JODY: Wow, okay. Well, I look forward to being back in my adopted home of Ireland, in West Cork, living by the sea. The question of roots, of connection, is deeply important and significant to childless women. I come from a very small family. I don’t really have brothers and sisters. Put all that in brackets, that’s a complicated story. Just my mom, don’t know my dad, and no children. During the worst of my grief, I felt like I could just float away, and no one would even notice. I felt so disconnected from the earth.
JODY: I’m half Irish genetically, and for me, I have a feeling in Ireland of being in the presence of my indigenous roots, which is something that feels deeply, deeply precious to me because I’ve never felt it before. I feel something there I’ve never felt before. I’m really interested in my work with elderhood around really going deep into my ancestral lineage as well. I’m almost definitely descended from witches, and a very proud bunch I’m sure they must be.
JODY: I’m really interested in going deeper with my work, creating workshops and resources around perhaps creating a rite of passage experience for childless menopausal women, because I think the experience of the menopause when you’re childless, I call it a death you survive. It is this feeling of the end of the line. My work may become more sacred in some ways, as well as more public in terms of public policy and education. I suppose I’m moving into my elderhood. It’s that stage of life when you become a teacher, with a bit of luck, a wise elder. You pay a very high price for wisdom in life.
JODY: All the things that have hurt, all the things that have gone wrong, all the things that have broken our heart, that’s what creates wisdom. So I really hope that in the last third of my life, I can give some of that back.
JO: Just like Jody, I’ve been investigating my roots too in the last few years. I was born in Italy, in Sicily, and many of my family are still there. What’s interesting to me though is that so many of the women in my family are not having children.
JODY: Italy, like Ireland and like Spain, so three of the really strongest traditional Catholic countries in Europe all have one of the highest childlessness rates of one in four. What I’ve seen in Italy, in particular, is that a lot of it is that the women need to work, they become professionals, and really there’s still this very, very old macho patriarchal way of being a wife and mother in Italy, which is very hard to marry with having a career. So a lot of young Italian women are going, “Well…” They’re having to make a choice, and a lot of them can’t afford to give up their careers. But also, they don’t want to tolerate some of the really antique prejudices that are still supported.
JODY: I was an au pair in Rome when I was a wee little kitten, and my boyfriend, my Italian boyfriend from that time, we remained friends. He got married, and actually one of his children is my godson. I saw him as a very educated progressive Italian man change into something I barely recognized when he got married, and he became his father, who he hated. He hated how oppressive his father was to his mother. There are things in all of our countries, things develop and change at different rates, and I think the women in Italy are on a fast track to modern life.
JO: But, back to the future. Jody has big plans with Gateway Women and the workshops that now, almost thanks to the pandemic, are bigger and global like the Reignite Weekends she facilitates.
JODY: We’ve moved them online, our workshops, and we had our first one a couple of weekends ago. I was absolutely blown away by how powerful it was. I’ve been teaching an online program, like the Plan B Mentorship Program online for three years, so I know how much learning and growth you can have online. But, the Reignite Weekend, which I’ve run like 40 times in person, so I really know what is possible on that weekend, it totally exceeded my expectations and the participants’ of the healing and growth. It means that we can bring it to Australia again. I think it’s February 2021 we will be hosting it for the first time in Australia and also training one of our facilitators in Australia to lead it, who maybe you already know, Sarah Roberts. We’re doing it in America as well. We will go back to offering them in person.
PENNY: Jody, you identified for a long time as childless by circumstance, and then you made a reference that you now feel that you can identify as childfree, and you used an extra term on it.
JODY: Adapted childfree, but also I use the word childless very consciously because I also want to show that I’m not ashamed to say that I’m childless. I’m childless and I’m proud, but also childless is part of my identity now. It is not who I am, it is something that has happened to me. I’m Jody, I’m a writer, I’m a psychotherapist, I’m a social entrepreneur, I’m a dog mum, I’m so many things, I’m also childless. It is not the most important thing about me, it is something about me. So, I’m Jody, I’m childless, but I’m so much more.
PENNY: Wow. That was impressive. I have to say that Jody has a wealth of knowledge. Honestly, there are so many topics within being childless, and we’ve had lots of conversations about some of those things. But, there’s so much more depth to it that we have yet to delve into that we had those conversations with Jody today.
JO: I feel like I’ve been sheltered from a lot of those things, because I think we live in our own little bubble, right? We’re like, oh, okay, well the way that childlessness affects me is the way that childlessness affects a lot of people, and that’s not true.
PENNY: I hadn’t really thought about the whole concept of the crone, and I know, Jo, you definitely picked up some things out of this conversation.
JO: Well, about men, the myth about men blew me away. I didn’t know that sperm started to deteriorate. I just thought, oh, there are just millions of them, and they just get in there, and doesn’t matter as long as you’ve got a young woman with a good uterus, who wants to have your child as well. So, that was one thing.
PENNY: The other thing was about, which is something that I related to because it was about the single childless experience. I want to speak to the single childless, because it is very different to being in a married relationship and having met that status that we talked about earlier, that you don’t have it, and you get this whole extra layer that affects you, impacts you.
JO: We talk about the bingos with childlessness, there’s also the bingos. As you brought up, I’m guilty of some of those bingos when it comes to single. I’m sure that I’ve said to single girlfriends in the past, “Just be grateful sometimes that you’re single, because seriously being in a relationship with a man can be a real pain in the ass,” which is exactly what you hear from women with babies, right? So, I’m guilty of saying those things, so really what it opened up for me is this idea that my experience is not everybody’s experience. Surprise. But also, that the experiences are very nuanced, because I look at that and go, what’s the problem? But, it is a problem.
PENNY: We had that conversation, but I didn’t really say what it was necessarily that you had said, and if I was to think of an example, I would say, you very, very proudly shared that you’ve been married for 25 years-
PENNY: 26, okay. Big thumbs from Penny to Jo. That I feel that I’ve missed out on a status by not having it, and that that’s like a little bit of a rub each time it’s said. Well, you don’t have this. It doesn’t matter what your intention is behind it, it’s how I’ve felt when it’s been said. Because I haven’t had that status, but have felt all of the negatives around being single and not having children, that you’re advantage with being married and not having to have experienced a lot of those other bingos, comments – It’s just a reminder that, yeah, okay, yeah, I know. So, that’s what it is about.
JO: I think the more, again, we keep saying this in every episode, we keep saying the more we talk about it, the more other people who don’t understand someone else’s experience can go, “Oh. That’s a different experience from mine.”
PENNY: And that’s what we’re here for, right? We want to make these conversations. We’re going to bring up some of the difficult conversations and make it that maybe this will make you think about having a conversation with someone else, because wow, some of these things that Jody has shared with us today has made me think slightly differently about things.
JO: That was really terrific. Thanks everyone. See you next time.
PENNY: Thanks for joining us. See you next time.
JO: We’d like you to join us on our Facebook page, which is (un)Ripe Community. If you’re childless or child free, you’re welcome to join our private group which you’ll find a link to on the Facebook page. We’re also on Instagram @unripecommunity.
PENNY: If you want to share a story or let us know what topics you’d like to hear more about, please drop us an email at HelloUnripe@gmail.com. Our website is where you’ll find out a bit more about us. Go to unripecommunity.com.au. We would love for you to leave a positive review for us on your favourite podcast platform.
To listen/read to some of Jody's other podcast interviews, click here. And if you'd like to invite her to be a guest on your show, she would be delighted to consider your request! Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org