Listen to a short clip of Jody Day's interview with Helen Russell for her How to Be Sad' podcast above or click here to listen to the whole interview (56-minutes). Read the full transcript below.
Helen Russell’s interview with me for her ‘How to be Sad’ podcast interview covers so much ground that I hardly know where to start! We go fearlessly into places that normally childless women don’t discuss publicly including some things I’ve never discussed before:
- My journey from childhood and young adulthood where I didn’t think I wanted children, to becoming an involuntarily childless woman experiencing unexplained infertility and then social infertility before crashing into my childless grief in my mid-forties;
- The real IVF stats and how celebrity ‘late’ pregnancies can give a different and mostly incorrect impression;
- The shocking correlations between PTSD and fertility treatments;
- The impact of childlessness on sexual intimacy;
- The taboo of childlessness after abortion;
- Childless or childfree – how the terms aren’t interchangeable;
- Unhelpful cultural ideas around not having children;
- Painful things people say to childless women – and how to frame your ideas about what to say back;
- ‘Pronatalism’ and how it does ALL women (mothers and non-mothers) a disservice;
- How our body ‘remembers’ painful anniversaries related to our childlessness;
- A breathing technique I use when I have ‘griefy moments’;
- The growing numbers of women who are ‘childless by circumstance’ which is the majority (80%) of women childless at midlife, and how they are misunderstood and ignored;
- How structural issues such as housing, economics, education and the set up of the professional working world runs counter to female fertility;
- My ideas about what it is that might be fuelling the discomfort many feel around and about childless women and how this may have its roots in humanity’s deep tribal roots;
- The importance of childless and childfree role models – if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.
- Disenfranchised grief and how to support yourself (or others) experiencing it;
- How grief is a ‘social emotion’ and needs empathic company to enable you to heal;
- How contacting something numinous in my own dark night of the soul over my childlessness helped me;
- How finding a new purpose for your life after childlessness – a Plan B – is a uniquely personal journey;
- About how childlessness is the ‘bad fairy’ at the infertility christening and we are rarely included in any discussions about, or documentaries about, infertility.
- Resources for childless men;
- Why the ‘crazy cat lady’ joke isn’t funny;
- And so much more!
Hello, my name is Helen Russell. I’m a journalist, happiness researcher and author, and ‘How To Be Sad’ is the podcast exploring why we get sad. What we can do when we’re sad, and how we can all get happier, by learning to be sad better inspired by the book of the same name. Each episode, I’ll be joined by a special guest sharing their own experiences. Welcome to ‘How To Be Sad.’ Jody Day is the founder of Gateway Women, the global support network for childless women now celebrating its 10th anniversary. Jody is also a psychotherapist and author of Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope. Meaning, and a Fulfilling Future Without Children, the book the British Medical Journal now recommends to patients coming to terms with unavoidable childlessness. Jody says, “Now, in no way do I wish to diminish the heartbreak, you might be feeling I’ve been there, it’s the darkest place I’ve ever been. You never get over childlessness, it’s not the flu, but it is possible to heal around it.” So Jody Day, thank you so much for joining me today.
Jody Day 04:05
Thank you, it’s lovely to be here.
Helen Russell 04:07
So I would love for anyone who hasn’t read the book, could you start by telling us a little about your own journey.
Jody Day 04:14
Absolutely, well I’m now entering my hashtag Apprentice Crone years at 56, soon to be 57. But when I was younger, I grew up in a home where things were quite unhappy. I didn’t grow up with the idea that family life was something I wanted to replicate for myself, so I think I began my journey as a young woman as probably being quite childfree, and this was, this was really challenged when I got pregnant accidentally at 20, and I was terrified because I thought I was going to be fulfilling my family legacy of having a child young out of wedlock, and it “ruining my life”. So, I had an abortion at 20, and went on a few years later to meet the man I would marry, and when we were getting to that stage I said to him, I don’t think I want to have children and he was like, Okay. And then we got married, and I was 29 and I had come to realise that having children didn’t necessarily mean having my childhood. And so I changed my mind. Luckily for me, because you know this is a conversation that can derail a lot of relationships, he was okay with the change of plan and we started trying for a family, and I was never able to conceive, and it was unexplained infertility. I had an operation a few years later called a laparoscopy where they send a camera through your belly button to have a look around and we tried very hard, and I did a lot of alternative treatments, but nothing worked and I entered a period of profound what I call baby mania, which anyone who has struggled to conceive will know exactly what I’m talking about. And we were just on the cusp, really, of thinking about fertility treatments, when our marriage broke down under the stress of it all, when I was 37, so I found myself back out on the dating world at sort of 40, hoping still to meet someone and do IVF, which I thought was a silver bullet which always worked because that’s the impression you get until you get a bit closer to it, that didn’t work out I didn’t meet someone to take that adventure with, and so at 44 and a half. It was over.
So that was my journey to not being a mother. I think what was so hard for me is, at that point when I looked for support, when I looked for understanding, when I looked for guidance from friends, from family, from the medical profession, from the therapeutic profession, from Dr. Google, there was nothing. And so a couple of years later I was doing my training to become a psychotherapist, and I started my blog Gateway Women, my first blog was 10 years ago. And so we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary and from that has grown everything including my book, Living the Life Unexpected which really grew out of my work with childless women helping them with their childlessness as I had done. So that’s the potted history of how it all happened.
Helen Russell 07:26
Thank you and I think you mentioned IVF and the idea that many of us think it’s a silver bullet, I think it’s worth reiterating some of the real statistics around that isn’t it , and it’s only around 23% of IVF treatments are successful.
Jody Day 07:41
It is shocking. In my work I support many women who went to IVF clinics in their early 40s, and that’s when they heard the statistics – when they were told that they would possibly have, you know, a 3% likelihood of success, which let’s face it is a 97% failure rate, Those are very bad gambling odds. The overall success rate, is as you say, under 25%, globally, and even with the highest success rate is still under 50% and that is for women who are in their 20s. So, what I didn’t know, what so many people of my generation didn’t know I think the next generation is more clued up about this. I didn’t even know that my eggs aged. I didn’t, I knew that fertility declined as you got older, but I didn’t actually understand the mechanism of it, and I felt so stupid. When I realised what I didn’t know, because all I’ve learned at school was just don’t get pregnant. In fact, you know don’t even sit on a warm chair that a boy’s just been in, just in case! The messaging is very much don’t get pregnant at school, it’s absolutely and I’m thrilled that teenage pregnancies have dropped so much in all developed countries. However, the message is so strong that basically, you know you can get pregnant at the drop of a hat. That’s not the case. I convened a panel at WOW, the Women of the World Festival, a few years ago and there was a gynecologist on the panel with me. And she said, actually it’s a miracle that anyone gets pregnant. Pregnancy in humans is incredibly difficult because of our immune system accepting a foreign body into it. She said it’s actually a miracle we manage it at all, rather than it being this incredibly easy thing. We’re very infertile compared to most other mammals.
Helen Russell 09:40
And I think the miracle idea as well isn’t so helpful. I spoke to the journalist Bibi Lynch, for How To Be Sad, and she says that she certainly felt almost conned by the media coverage of miracle babies or of celebrities considering later in life and that’s not helpful as well.
Jody Day 10:05
That is so difficult and I really feel for those celebrities because it is a public event, but also it’s a very private event in their family life, and if they have conceived their children with donor eggs, via surrogacy with assistance. That is actually a terribly private matter between them and their children. yet unfortunately, because it is not discussed it gives this erroneous impression of fertility in women of mid-40s and older. But just like we only see the miracle baby stories, the successful stories in the press, in the media, I also wonder how many celebrities are there out there who have thrown an equal amount of money and time, and health at the issue, and have not ended up with a baby. That their surrogate miscarried, their donor eggs didn’t work, all of the things that we know can happen, sadly, because fertility is one of those things that just like death does not respond to human will, but we give the appearance that it does, and that is desperately difficult for women to discover.
Helen Russell 11:22
What’s really helpful about Gateway Women and the work that you’re doing, is talking about these things more. In your book I was really interested to read about the incidences of PTSD in women who’ve experienced infertility treatments, I think you’re at 50% of women who had undergone fertility treatments had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to 8% of the general population. It’s such an ordeal that just doesn’t get spoken about.
Jody Day 11:50
And that’s actually higher than combat veterans that 50%,
Helen Russell 11:53
And that’s because it is so invasive.
Jody Day 11:55
Yes, absolutely, and often over a long period of time, and repeated interactions. I recently created what we think is the world’s first training program for therapists around the impact of involuntary childlessness on sexual intimacy in couples. And that was for COSRT (the UK College of Sex and Relationship Therapists), and the impact on your sense of your body as a place of pleasure, and also the privacy of your own body. I remember one woman said, I don’t know how many men have seen my vagina, and the comments that are made during this time, the lack of sensitivity that this is a traumatic experience that the woman is going through. In a way, her body is being violated. And it can be experienced on such a profound level. And that can come between couples in very difficult ways, rediscovering their own sexual self and what their sex life is about after infertility and childlessness is something that as far as I can work out every childless couple I know nods, but none of them want to really talk about it publicly. I’m going to be doing a webinar later this year with sex and relationship experts, a public webinar, to talk about this because it feels like another one of the taboos, within the taboo of childlessness that really needs to be surfaced and normalised so that people can not feel alone with it.
Helen Russell 13:31
The idea that if people are feeling alone and this grief for a child that you have not had, I think this idea of disenfranchised grief is so fascinating. Bibi Lynch spoke to me a little bit about this but could you explain what that means to you?
Jody Day 13:47
Disenfranchised grief comes from the work of Professor Kenneth Doka who first named it in the 1980s. And I think perhaps the name for it is a little bit too technical, I think perhaps for people to really grasp what it means. Because often, I have to explain what disenfranchised means first. Disenfranchised means kind of not permitted. Not allowed. You’re not free to have this emotion, there are newer expressions which I think are perhaps more self-explanatory, like it is a non-death grief, and it is a living loss, but the disenfranchised part of it is helpful because grief is a social emotion and we have to have permission from our society to experience it, and for it to be allowed to be empathized with. And when you are grieving your childlessness one of the things you will possibly hear is you can’t grieve something you haven’t had, and this is absolutely not true. Grief is the emotion, and at the physiological, psychological and spiritual experience that arises in us, when something has irrevocably been taken from us, it can never be got back, it’s gone, it’s gone forever. And that is something that happens to us many times in life. And heartbreak is an acceptable form of grief. But what about the heartbreak of unrequited love. Unrequited love is a disenfranchised form of grief, it was never a relationship so how can you possibly be heartbroken over it because heartbreak is an acceptable word for grief.
So disenfranchised grief is grief that is not allowed to be in relationship with others, not allowed to be spoken about, not allowed to be experienced. And when you are experiencing it, you’re sort of told that you’re malingering, that you need to get over it, that there’s something wrong with you, that perhaps you’re mentally ill, that you’re a drama queen, you’ve got a personality disorder. All kinds of things, other than, Gosh, how are you doing with this today, just a little bit of empathy. Because if one was to have lost a living child, people would understand that it was a bereavement, but I did think that perhaps that provided a lot more sympathy over a longer period of time. And I was contacted by bereavement therapists quite early on in my writing for Gateway Women who said well, actually, after a couple of years, people do still expect you, even as a bereaved parent, to sort of pull yourself together, especially if you go on to have more children. And there is this sense that if on the anniversary of that child’s birthday or death, you are still grieving 10 years later, you’re kind of looked askance at which breaks my heart. It’s something obviously I deal with all the time because the anniversaries of childlessness are written so deeply in our hearts. And even if we forget them cognitively, our body remembers them forever.
Helen Russell 16:58
In what way would that be?
Jody Day 16:59
You can have a sense of the day that you would have given birth, had you not had a miscarriage. You may not have it written in your diary. But when that time of year starts to come up, you start to feel unaccountably sad, and then you realize, ‘Oh it’s that time of year again’ – it’s like the body has a deeper wisdom. And if we see grief as a form of healing, rather than an illness or a character failure as it’s often seen as, we can see that it’s actually healing happening. And so that’s what I do when I have a griefy moment or a griefy day. I’ve learned to welcome it in. I open my heart literally, physically in the front of my chest and I breathe the grief in, and I imagine it passing through my heart. And for me, really importantly, out the back of my heart. So it’s passing through me, and I’m going, that’s another piece of my heart healing, and I invite it through.
Helen Russell 18:00
That’s a really valuable exercise, thank you for sharing that with us. It seems so extraordinary for me that it is something so seldom discussed, especially considering the statistic – is it one in five women?
Jody Day 18:14
One in five women is the average. So that’s the number of women who are reaching mid-life without children, 10% of those are childfree by choice, 10% of those are child free due to infertility or other medical issues, but 80% are childless by circumstance. And that is still something that is missing from the public narrative, and many of those are childless because they either don’t have a partner or didn’t have a partner during their fertile years. And there’s an awful lot of other structural reasons why women are ending up childless when that wasn’t a choice, to do with finances, housing, timing, education. It’s so complex, often, to create the right environment, or a suitable environment to bring in a child. Chronic illnesses and traumas and things like that. It feels like you work on those to get the situation right and then your fertility has timed out.
Helen Russell 19:14
And with education, I was very interested to write about the education system and perhaps the career structure that many of us will feel compelled to follow is not set up to leave an available and helpful window for women’s fertility in many cases,
Jody Day 19:31
Absolutely and I do get some quite ranty emails from, I have to say I’m afraid they are from men, telling me that, well, ‘it serves us right you stupid feminists.’ Yes, I know! I was born as an unplanned teenage pregnancy to a 60s Catholic teenager, and when I look at what’s happened in my lifetime, which has been: access to the pill, access to legalized and safe abortion, women’s access to higher education, to the professions, fertility treatments – all in one generation, all in my lifetime. Many of us were brought up by mothers who didn’t have those options, and were thrilled for us, and encouraged us to go for them, and quite rightly. But one of the unintended consequences of that can be that we entered a system that had been set up over many, many, many years since the industrial revolution of working in the professions which was to get educated to be a sort of apprentice during your 20s for your career to really take off in your 30s, and to be active be able to create a family in your 40s.
Now, that works really well for male fertility, but women have gone into that world, and it doesn’t work. I mean there have always been women who combined work with having a family, they’re called the working class. It’s just that the professional setup, doesn’t really suit female fertility. And also with us all living so much longer. And with probably ‘retirement’, becoming a quaint phrase in another generation. The idea that we’ve got to sort of pack all that in by the time we’re 35 or 40, is, is something we really massively need to rethink, because perhaps having your family in your 20s and early 30s, and then going to university in your 40s, and then really hitting your stride in your career in your 50s, you know might actually work a lot better over the life course than the current system. So there are structural issues that don’t work for women because we have entered a world that wasn’t built by us.
Helen Russell 21:54
So it’s radical change that might be what’s needed.
Jody Day 21:57
Yes, and that’s very, very hard to do. Gateway Women is 10 years on, we are changing the conversation. But one of the difficulties is that the childless woman is still seen as a figure of fun or something to be feared. So, it is quite difficult for us to find a voice in society because we’re kind of like the bad fairy at the christening, we’re Cruella de Vil, we’re Snow White’s evil stepmother. We do not have a good standing in society. So it’s hard to be that voice, that canary in the coalmine, because no one wants to listen to us, because we’re the feared figure. I’m ‘that childless woman’.
Helen Russell 22:37
And what do you think that fear is based on?
Jody Day 22:40
I’m beginning to think it has deep, deep tribal roots in our collective unconscious. If you think about it, we are the dominant species on the planet, not because we run the fastest and we’ve got the biggest claws. But because we are co-operative, because we work together to solve problems. And what creates a tribe? People. Our early survival as humans depended on big families, on big tribes and growing the number of the tribe. We had massive infant mortality until very very recently in human history. So the fertile woman, the woman who was having lots of children, was extremely important, and a woman who was not able to have children, you know, there was no real understanding of what that might be like. So in a way she was seen as a threat. Perhaps she was cursed? There was a real fear of the childless woman who, interestingly enough, because she wasn’t bringing up children, she often had time to dedicate to learning. She often became the midwife, the healer. What in later times would sadly be called the witch, because she had time to devote to wisdom because she wasn’t bringing up children. So there was also value in that, but it was value, it was power, that was feared.
So if you imagine you take that which is unconscious into the modern world, plus being under patriarchy, childless women are actually disruptors in the system. If you can imagine those now one in five of us are not bringing up children. We are educating, we are out in the world, and should it be our life’s calling, we can focus on being quite prominent and creating change in the world and ascending to positions of power. We don’t have to, but some of us are interested in doing that. Now if you can imagine we get to a point where, one in five women is able to do that. And we have many women in positions of power, we have very many female prime ministers and leaders around the world now. The idea that men have been in charge because they’re better at it, that they’re suited to it that they’re born to it starts to break down a little. Because actually, no, maybe it wasn’t the case, maybe they just weren’t bringing up children?! Maybe that’s why they had the time to lead countries and write books and create social change and be great artists and composers and leaders because they have the time. It’s very destabilizing to the social order to have a lot of childless women around.
Helen Russell 25:13
You have a very lovely section in the back of the Living the Life Unexpected about female role models in different areas that I think is so helpful. I recently spoke to someone who’s going through a divorce who said “I just kept Googling, you know, ‘successful divorced women.'” I think anyone going through any life stage – you just want to see that there are people like you who you can look up to. And that’s really helpful.
Jody Day 25:34
But it’s very hard to be it if you can’t see it, and I know for me, when I was first coming to terms with my childlessness, I couldn’t find anyone. There was Oprah, and she was childfree by choice and very happy with it, but amongst my circle of friends and family, acquaintances and colleagues, and at that time in British culture, I couldn’t find a single, childless woman who had not chosen it, but had come to terms with it. The childfree women, the woman who has chosen not to have children, has been getting a lot more airtime in the last few years and that’s fantastic, but they tend not to carry the burden of shame and grief that often goes with childlessness, and they have been considering and reflecting on the situation for much longer. Often their whole lives. So, in a way, their thinking is a lot more evolved, and they’re at peace because they actually got the life they wanted. So they come across so powerfully and so wonderfully that in a way I think people think there are more of them than there are. In the UK, for those born in 1971, it’s 6% of the women who are childless at midlife are childless by choice – what’s called childfree. It’s a much smaller percentage than people realize. But because women who are childless not by choice often don’t talk about it, because it’s so badly received, and sort of pretend maybe that they’re more okay with it than they are just to rebut those awful social situations, it can be really difficult to know us, but we’re hidden in plain sight.
Helen Russell 27:13
I would love to talk about the things that can be helpful to do the grief work, but I wonder whether first, it might be useful to share some of the unhelpful cultural ideas and unhelpful things that people say, and then what people can do to respond, what you tend to recommend?
Jody Day 27:30
Thank you. Well, unfortunately, we call them ‘bingos’ because on a really bad day you can get a full house. I explore these in my TED talk, The Lost Tribe of Childless Women. They appeared to be fairly universal, which is interesting because that does show that they’re little embedded unconscious messages. These can come from the most empathic people in other areas. So, ‘Do you have children?’, and then you have to answer it. Number one, I would suggest to people, take a breath, you don’t necessarily have to. If you say ‘No’, or as I used to say, ‘Unfortunately not’, the next question will nearly always be ‘Why not?’. And this can be someone you’ve met at the bus stop. This can be a new colleague at work. This can be absolutely anyone. So if you’ve been having fertility struggles or if you’re grieving your childlessness, it’s like the floor opens up beneath you.
Helen Russell 28:29
Yes, I would cry regularly just out and about. Don’t ask people that!
Jody Day 28:34
And there is this extraordinary sense of proprietary towards a woman’s uterus. You really see this when a woman is pregnant, suddenly it’s as if her body isn’t her own, and strangers will come up and ask her questions about it, people will touch a pregnant woman’s belly without asking permission. There is this extraordinary sense of ownership. And with childless women, it’s like ‘Well, why not?’. And at that point you’re faced with a real dilemma because you can give a detailed answer, which often can be quite overwhelming for the person, but what you will hear back often is, ‘Why didn’t you just adopt?,’ ‘Why don’t you just have a baby on your own?’ Or other bingos can be ‘You’re so lucky, you get to sleep in and travel!’, or ‘You dodged a bullet there, children aren’t all they’re cracked up to be!’, or ‘Here have one of mine!’, or ‘You’re one of those career women aren’t you?’
At my ex father-in-law’s funeral, when I was eight years into failing to conceive, a woman who I had never met, an old lady, grabbed me by the elbow, looked up at me and said, ‘You’re so selfish your generation, he would have loved to have had a grandchild by his eldest son’ – and I had never met this woman before in my life. I was grieving my father-in-law. My marriage was in shreds and I was suffering from unexplained infertility and she just presumed I was making a selfish choice not to have children.
I also really, really hate the idea that not having children is selfish. Because actually, if you’re someone who knows that parenting isn’t for you, and that there are other things that you feel your life is calling you to, I think perhaps to have children in that situation is selfish. I wish people thought more about having children and whether it was right for them rather than less.
Helen Russell 30:28
Are there any zingers, any surefire ways to rebuff these kinds of unhelpful and really hurtful comments?
Jody Day 30:37
It really depends where you are on your grief journey and how robust you’re feeling. I think when you’re in deep grief, you really just have to do your best to get yourself out of that situation, as you say, without bursting into tears. Although bursting into tears is an option.
Helen Russell 30:52
They’ll shut down the conversation rather well I have found!
Jody Day 30:54
Yes! First of all, I would encourage you to take a breath. As women we have been acculturated to be compliant, to do the emotional labour, to answer the question. I would say, first of all, take a breath. This is personal information. You do not have to answer it. Then I would choose from a selection of statements that you had pre-prepared, that work for different situations. You might need a jokey one. I used to use a jokey one at sort of cocktail parties (remember those?!) something like, ‘I don’t think so!’. Then they would look at me and we would laugh it off. Or you might want a thoughtful and kind one, like I used to say, ‘Unfortunately not…’ and then I used to continue it, if I could, if I thought it was one of those ‘Why not?’ people, and say, ‘and none of the other options were really suitable for us, either. So to just close down the whole thing.
Often you can find that it’s helpful to bat it back very quickly, because it will not be a childless person or someone struggling with infertility who has asked that question! It will be probably 99 times out of 100 they will be a parent, and they’re just looking for a way to connect with you socially, they’re actually not looking to drop a bomb on you, they’re actually just trying to connect, so you can say, ‘It’s kind of a long story, didn’t really work out for us. How about you? Do you have children?’ So you just bat it right back so you need a variety of things.
You can also be quite honest and say, ‘Actually, that’s a bit of a tender topic, maybe when we know each other a bit better?’ It’s really important to recognise that you own your story, and you choose who you share it with. And you are not the childless Google you do not have to explain everything to them. You do not have to explain about fertility rates, how difficult it is to adopt, the decisions that you or you and your partner have made or are making or will make. This is a private matter and you’re allowed to keep it private.
Helen Russell 32:39
That’s nice. I think that’s very good advice, you’re not the infertility Google! Send people to do the work themselves. You talk, in your TED Talk (which I love and which everyone should watch!) about how uncomfortable we are with the unfixable in our society. In my book How To Be Sad I’m looking a lot at how we are so uncomfortable with sitting with any kind of discomfort and we try to medicate it and we’ll fix it with technology. Is childlessness, I wonder, one of the ultimate or the ultimate in terms of things that we just are uncomfortable with because we cannot just click our fingers and fix it?
Jody Day 33:39
Absolutely, childlessness is a form of death. It’s the death of your line. I think there is a whiff of death about childless women, unconsciously, that people are really uncomfortable about. Now that there are options to ‘fix it’, as you say, and if you’ve never had to explore what those are, you will have the impression, as I did, that they always work. It’s very natural for people to jump to infertility treatments, to adoption, to various other things you can do. The idea that actually you might have tried all those things and they didn’t work… That, as we were talking about, with celebrities and people with access to huge financial and medical resources, you can throw everything at this and still not have a baby. The idea that there are things in life like infertility, childlessness, old age and death, that do not respond to human agency and will is terrifying. Now we live in an age where we like to think we can solve everything, but actually, we are still these fragile fleshy envelopes of water walking around in a sharp pointy world with finite lives. We are so fragile, powerless over the really big things, and many of the small things too, but that is a massive Inconvenient Truth.
Helen Russell 35:03
It certainly is. Jody, I would love for you to tell us about what we do with that grief. I spoke to the psychotherapist Julia Samuel about living losses and the idea of how we handle this. You had some really great suggestions in your book, and I love the research from the Sue Ryder charity, I really like the finiteness that we grieve “on average for two years, one month and four days after losing a loved one.” You give a lot of hope in your work and in your writing about how this will hurt and it will hurt a lot, and it will never go away. But if you do some work, you will feel better, a bit better in about a year so can you tell me about what we should be doing to greet these living losses.
Jody Day 35:47
I think the most important thing that grief needs, is it needs company, it needs empathic company. It is very helpful in all forms of grief, especially in the early stages to be around people who’ve experienced a very very similar form of grief. So for example, you know for bereaved parents of young children, it is incredibly helpful to be with other bereaved parents or children around that age. And for women who are grieving their childlessness, it is incredibly important, particularly as our grief is disenfranchised, that we have other childless women who are prepared to look at that grief to discuss it with, because there will be many childless women perhaps in your life who are not willing to discuss it, who are not willing to go there, you need to find what I call the conscious childless women, the ones who are conscious that they’re grieving and they need support.
Grief is a social emotion it is a form of love. It needs an other. It needs relationship, that is how it heals. If it was possible to grieve on our own, in our heads, in our rooms, we would do it, and we’d all be fine. It doesn’t work like that. Until grief has that other to be connected to them till you can look into the eyes or you can read the words for someone online and you can have that sense that they 100% understand what you’re talking about, there is some kind of magic alchemy of healing in that moment, and I feel very moved to think about it now because I don’t know where I would be today had I not found those women online. I remember just tears running down my face I’m just like, oh my god I’m not alone in this. I am understood, and that is how we’ve healed, is this deep sense of reflection of recognition of empathy. One of the really extraordinary things about grief and I talk about this in my work a lot, is that grief is a process of identity transformation. Probably the last time in our life for many of us, if we haven’t been through a deep grief before, that we will have experienced such profound alteration to our identity was probably adolescence. It changes everything about us, loving someone or something, and losing someone or something changes us, we can never go back to who we were before. We are profoundly altered. So as well as needing support with the emotional side of grief, there’s also the fact that it alters all of the relationships in our lives, including our relationship with ourselves, our understanding of what our purpose and meaning is, how the world works. It changes everything about us. We need others who are going through that too because otherwise it can feel quite crazy-making.
Helen Russell 38:32
It is very overwhelming and I was not at all surprised when you write in the book about after you give talks, women come up to you and there’s often the unspoken question, something like, can you please tell me how to sort my life out because you seem to have managed it, so could you have a go at mine? It reminded me of Fleabag – asking the hot priest, just tell me what to do with my life – this sort of overwhelm. But unfortunately, you say no, you can’t fix it for me.
Jody Day 38:58
I can’t, it would be as likely as if I set you up on a blind date. Only you know your heart and soul’s desire, but one of the really confusing things during grief is that we feel that we don’t anymore. We feel that we’ve lost connection to the person who knew what we wanted to do with our lives, how the world worked. What our meaning and purpose was. There’s a moment in grief, in the healing of grief where you sort of, you swim out into a dark ocean, and at a certain point you have to let go of the shore, and you actually can’t see the other side yet. There is a moment when you let go of what was, and you don’t yet know what will be, and it is an utterly terrifying moment. One of the things I talk about is the fact that there are many other people swimming in the water with you. It’s just it’s dark, you can’t see them, and gradually as your eyes get accustomed to the light, you will see the sea is full of swimmers, all going to that far shore that they can’t see yet. It requires such courage to grieve, such incredible courage, and only a dark night of the soul, so bad that in the end you’re prepared to let go of that shore would send us on our way to the person we are becoming who we don’t know yet. It is absolutely the most misunderstood and the most profoundly transformative experience, the human experience to grieve, and I think it is the engine of change. I think one of the reasons we are stuck in our society in so many ways is totally focused on the bright side of change. The bright shiny, brand new you, new year, new this. But everything that is new, first of all you have to let go of what is old, and the emotion that allows you to let go is grief. So without grief, we can’t change.
Helen Russell 40:55
I live in Denmark, so the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard would say that despair is an agency of change, it’s the emotion that you realise something is wrong, and that what you have to do about it next. But as you say it is terrifying. What advice do you give to women or anyone who is just wondering where to get that courage from where can we find that or at least shore up what we perhaps already have.
Jody Day 41:21
I do remember a moment of lying on the floor of my flat in London, I couldn’t think of a single reason to get off the floor. I thought well I’ll just stay here until I can think of a reason, and I lay there for most of the day, staring at a crack in the skirting board. The only reason that got me up in the end was my bladder, because I couldn’t think. I felt like I was a pointless individual using oxygen that would be better used by someone else. I think the profundity of hopelessness that can be part of your grief and a part of childless grief when you realise that it”s not just I’m not going to have a baby, but I’m not going to be part of the community of mothers, I’m not going to throw children’s birthday parties, I’m not going to give great grandchildren to my parents. This is the lifelong living loss. It’s a test. Frankly it’s amazing that any of us come out the other end of it, it’s so profound. I think for me in that time, I felt like I fell through the floor of my own existence, and I fell into a deeper place, and it was a pit of despair but underneath the despair there was something else. There was something numinous, something that reminded me of the child I had been before puberty, that loved nature, that felt connected to the deepest cycles of existence, who didn’t yet know that she was going to be denied the existence, the experience of giving birth, and be part of that wheel of life. I dropped into something that gave me a great sense of peace. It was as if when my soul was at its absolute lowest and probably quite close to death. I touched something that existed outside the realm of death and life. That gave me a moment of strength.
Helen Russell 43:12
That’s a profound, a profound experience. I wonder, did the idea of a new purpose, a Plan B as you talk about, did that start to come shortly after that experience?
Jody Day 43:25
I was already kind of on my way. I thought my plan B was to become a psychotherapist. I had wanted to be one for some time, but I had decided I couldn’t become one until I was a mother, because I thought I wouldn’t understand the human condition until I was a mother, because the pronatalist beliefs were deep in me as well. And then when I realised I was definitely going to be childless, I thought, me and the human condition, we’re actually quite well acquainted, I think I could give it a go. So I moved forward with that plan. Gateway Women started the year after I’d already started my psychotherapy training. I didn’t know Gateway Women was going to become this organisation that means so much to so, so many people. My website had 2 million hits. It’s meant so much to so many people around the world, childless men too, and I think it’s really important to include them because the disenfranchised grief of childlessness, is even more disenfranchised for childless men, that it’s as if they’ve been acculturated, well not as if, they have been acculturated not to be vulnerable, and to be grieving childlessness is to be incredibly vulnerable. And there’s very little support out there for them. I have encouraged several men over the years that I know to start something, and if you go to my website and go to Resources and click on Childless Men, everything that I know that is there for childless men is there.
Helen Russell 44:55
Okay, that’s a good tip. I spoke to Richard Clothier for my book and he has done interviews about male infertility as well and there’s a great new BBC documentary with Rhod Gilbert, the comedian. As you say it is one that’s not spoken to and is it up to 30% of fertility issues in couples are due to male factor infertility, but it’s just not talked about.
Jody Day 45:17
I’m very pleased that infertility is starting to be talked about, but childlessness is infertility’s sort of ugly step-brother and sister. On the whole, documentaries and things I’ve been involved in, it’s always my interview that gets cut because I represent the outcome that no one wants.
Helen Russell 45:36
Jody Day 45:37
I would love to see childlessness, childless men and childless women, be more featured in public discourse, rather than us being seen as a problem to be fixed.
Helen Russell 45:52
You speak very movingly in your TED talk about, well, you can explain it better than I can, but what actually you feel that you have to offer and how important it is and even more reasons why the rest of us should be listening.
Jody Day 46:04
I think childless women and men are part of that village that we talk about, to bring up children. It’s still so recent in human history that we no longer grow up and live our lives in a similar geographical area and have a large extended family. There always used to be childless aunts and bachelor uncles in families. There’s an extraordinary book, Professor Rachel Chrastil’s book, How to be Childless, is very much about the history of childlessness and actually there always used to be many many childless women, because it was often too expensive to get married. If you were a domestic worker, you weren’t allowed to get married because if you got married, you had to leave service, and that was the only work available. So there were many, many childless women in families who had a hugely important role to play. And yet now we’re sort of demonized. It wasn’t easy to be a childless woman before but it didn’t carry quite the stigma it does now. I think it’s actually worse now than it was probably for a long time because there’s this idea that we could have fixed it if we tried harder, because of the new technologies or because we’ve chosen it because we’re selfish career women. I don’t know any of these career women I know women with jobs. I’ve never met a career woman. I think the Daily Mail did find one once who said she preferred handbags to children. But she did come across as quite bonkers. So in all the years that the Daily Mail has obviously wanted a woman like that they’ve only found one!
Helen Russell 47:42
But also as you say, as someone who doesn’t want children of course that is to be celebrated as well. Pronatalism, you touched on, but perhaps it might be helpful to explain that because I certainly wasn’t familiar with that term until a couple of years ago and I think it’s something worth mentioning.
Jody Day 47:58
Thank you. Yes, be prepared if you haven’t heard of pronatalism, this is a bit like taking the red pill in ‘The Matrix’ because once you see it you can’t unsee it! It is a subset of the ideology of patriarchy and at its essence, it means that the only truly important way to be an adult is to be a parent, that parents have more value in society than people who do not have children. Now, this is not to undervalue the importance of parents or parenting, but it’s a way of privileging one human experience over another and that leads to a great deal of unfairness in society, which because it’s wrapped up in pronatalism, is seen to be somehow ‘natural’, normal and acceptable. An example of this is what I call #AsAMother, where being a mother gives a woman more weight to her opinion, even if it’s about something which has nothing to do with parenting – you wouldn’t say, ‘as a childless woman’. It’s just these constant micro-aggressions against childless women that ‘they wouldn’t understand’. As Andrea Leadsom MP famously said of Theresa May MP, that she ‘didn’t have a stake in the future’, that somehow, it makes us less responsible and less thoughtful adults. Now, childless women, childless people, have always contributed enormously to the fabric of civic society that everyone’s children rely upon: we are teachers, gynecologists, shop workers, nurses – every kind of taxpaying member of the community. We pay the taxes that build the hospitals and schools and pay the teachers. We are a part of this we are not apart from it, but pronatalism devalues our experience and our contributions.
Helen Russell 49:58
It’s very helpful the way you talk about the importance of having a reality check on what motherhood is, you mentioned Rachel Cusk’s book but also in your own book that “Motherhood is not an inoculation against sadness, disappointment, ageing loss abandonment betrayal disease, old age and death.” And I think that’s a really helpful reminder, as well. As somebody who went through a lot of fertility treatment and now I am a mother, there was a lot of guilt and shame attached to, almost deflecting to, the other side. For many years I felt I, therefore that I couldn’t let on to any of the more challenging aspects of parenting and as you very generously point out, that that is not helpful either. We shouldn’t be pretending motherhood is this sort of hallowed life, that actually the realities of all of our experiences, should be shared so that we are coming to this with a more clear-eyed perspective.
Jody Day 50:52
I think it’s incredibly important that motherhood and childlessness are seen as two versions of a messy, imperfect human experience. They’re just different versions. Unfortunately, pronatalism puts motherhood on a pedestal, which is incredibly unhelpful for mothers, who are just real human beings doing their best in an imperfect muddly way, with very challenging tasks to do. But what pronatalism does is that it also privileges the narrative of motherhood. So when mothers want to talk about how hard it is, there is a space for that – there will be newspaper articles, there will be websites there will be interviews about how challenging it is to be a parent. So we get all of the wonderful things, ‘It’s the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done,’ and you’ll get the challenging ones too.
Childlessness is not given that space, considering we are 25% of the adult population, we exist in a huge cultural blind spot. So, once again, it is really important that all aspects of parenthood are explored. But there is a massive imbalance because actually, we don’t hear all aspects of childlessness, and we very rarely hear my story, which is someone who wasn’t able to have children, went through a massive dark night of the soul, and is now out the other side and contributing to life in a meaningful way again. Childless women are usually either a cautionary tale for younger women on how not to screw up your life, or we are that childless woman who is destroyed by it, or the really happy childfree by choice woman who has lots of white cats white dogs, white furniture and holidays – they don’t exist either! We’re all just people muddling through as best we can.
Helen Russell 52:50
Thank you for correcting me, you’re right, it’s not an equivalent, and highlighting the one in five, one in four you think going into future generations, there is clearly a lot of work left to be done.
Jody Day 53:07
The Millennial generation, the eldest of whom is turning 40 this year, as some of those start to join the Gateway Women online community and are sharing their stories, the amount of them who are childless due to social infertility, which the World Health Organisation has now listed as a form of infertility now, is so high – ie: not having a willing or suitable partner during their fertile years. The stigma that women face who are both single and childless, the jokey archetype of the crazy cat lady, which is really not about cats, it’s about her childlessness. I had cats when I was married and no one called me a crazy cat lady. It wasn’t till I had cats and I was single and childless that it’s suddenly that. People think it’s funny. It’s not funny. It’s just a socially acceptable way, currently, to needle a single childless woman.
It’s really, really hard to find yourself single and childless not by choice at midlife, there is even more stigma and even less understanding because there’s this patriarchal idea that somehow you haven’t been ‘chosen’, you haven’t been seen as good enough for someone to have chosen to have a family with you. So there is this sense of being on the patriarchal scrapheap.
I’d also like to say that there is zero thought-space for the LGBT community, who have always experienced very high rates of childlessness before fertility treatments and continue to have the same experiences now. But there’s this sense that if you are a lesbian, gay or bisexual woman that you have chosen not to have children, there’s very little recognition of how this impacts you, you’re kind of left out of the narrative.
Helen Russell 55:02
That’s a really important point to make, thank you. As this podcast is about how we can be sad well, and you have talked very movingly about the importance of finding your community, opening up, finding a group, and talking about it. You mentioned some other things in your book that I wonder if we could touch on in terms of things we can practically do when people are experiencing this. I love that napping was high up there on the charts, that power naps are helpful, and creativity and music. You also mentioned that wonderful music, sad music can act as a companion in our times of grief. I love that. What helps you, what’s been useful, what have you found?
Jody Day 55:45
I’ve actually discovered film scores. It seems that music that’s in a minor key, which is often the kind of moody film score, so Hans Zimmer – I got completely addicted to the soundtrack to Gladiator! While I was in deep grief, and actually even thinking about it makes me want to cry now because there’s this scene at the end of Gladiator where he is mourning the loss of his wife and his child who’ve been murdered when he comes back to his land right at the end; he’s walking through these waving fields of corn and there’s this swelling Hans Zimmer soundtrack and I’m just in pieces.
Helen Russell 56:23
Anything by Hans Zimmer, I’m away! Honestly, it’s terrible.
Jody Day 56:26
So this sense that it allowed me to access something. In a way, grief work is about making visible the invisible, it is making tangible the intangible, which is why ritual is so important. Often we hold rituals where we come together and we read out letters of goodbye to the children who are not in our lives, and we burn them, and we bury the ashes and we have this sense of a community mourning and ritual. Women build shrines in their gardens. At Christmas time we talk about buying Christmas ornaments that represent those children, and putting them on the trim. It’s so important and that’s what ritual is for. That’s why it’s so deeply encoded in the human experience. It’s to make tangible the intangible and music is one way of doing that and many women can’t read during grief, it’s very, very common. In my experience, people can’t read. And so, listening to audiobooks can be incredibly helpful, and you may find that poetry and art touches you in a very, very deep way. I went so deep into the literature of grief, and I found such deep sense of peace that right back from the ancient Greeks onwards, people have been writing about grief, and I felt that across 1000s of years this person who was writing this understood me, in a way that sometimes people around me didn’t. I think my heart was more open to great art and to the numinous when I was in deep grief. I would spend a whole afternoon in the Seagram Murals room in the Tate Modern Gallery in London, in that low light. Just sitting. I was almost inside those paintings because they spoke to my heart so deeply of deep, deep loss.
Helen Russell 58:23
There is something very moving about getting some perspective and realizing, as you say, that other people have experienced this sense of grief. Throughout time, throughout geography. That’s incredibly powerful. And I always like to end by asking, with all that you know now, and this is perhaps a more loaded question than it might have been for other guests but what advice you would give to your 21-year-old self about how to be sad, and how to handle grief well.
Jody Day 58:54
I was so angry when I was 21. I was very sad. I was coming out of a traumatic childhood and I didn’t have any idea how to be me. I think I would say to that younger me that there is great beauty and richness and wisdom in your sadness, that it is not an illness, it is not a character failure. It is your soul speaking. And if you listen, it has so much to teach you.
Helen Russell 59:20
That’s wonderful. Thank you so much, Jody Day.
Jody Day 59:24
Thank you so much, Helen, it’s been a delight.
Helen Russell 59:29
Thank you so much for joining me today. Please do rate review and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. It really does help others find us and helps us to make more episodes. You can find out more about How To Be Sad the book and the podcast online and at Instagram @MsHelenRussell, and take care.
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