World Childless Week has been created by a British childless woman, Stephanie Phillips as a way to highlight the experience, individually and globally, of women and men who are childless not by choice. Each day of World Childless Week has a theme, and the theme for today, Tuesday 12th September 2017 is We Are Worthy.
Please find out more, share your thoughts, images, experiences and stories of being childless-not-by choices either below in the comments, on the World Childless Week Facebook page (where most of the activity is taking place this first year), on Twitter at @ChildlessWeek (using the #hashtag #WorldChildlessWeek) or at www.WorldChildlessWeek.com
For today’s theme of ‘We Are Worthy’ I’m sharing a blog I wrote four years ago and which still is one of the most read on my website, ‘Will I ever get over not having children?’ Because inside the idea of feeling ‘unworthy’ is the fear that we will never feel ‘worthy’ again, never feel good about ourselves again, never feel good about our lives again. And it’s not true, I know it, I promise it. But if you’re going to get there, you need to grieve…
Will I Ever Get Over Not Having Children?
There are two sides to the question “Do you ever get over not having children?” And it really depends on who’s doing the asking.
One is incredibly insulting, as in, “Aren’t you over that yet?!”
Whilst the other is, “Will I ever feel good about my life again?”
The fact is that if you were to have had children, and by some tragic event, they had died, hopefully people would never expect you to be completely ‘over it’* Indeed, if you ever were, you’d be considered heartless – that terrible fairytale nasty: a bad mother. Every Christmas or Mother’s Day, people would be sensitive towards how hard those celebrations must be for you. And if they forgot your loss, they’d feel terrible about it. Your loss would be considered life-changing.*
Yet if you’ve spent years (decades even!) of your life longing and planning to become a mother, and for a wide variety of reasons, some of them mundane, some of them tragic, you ended up without a family, you’re expected to just ‘get over it.’ But it’s not the flu; it’s not something you ‘get over’. You lost your family! You lost the chance to be a mother, to be a grandmother, to give birth to another life, to be the person that brought your partner’s children into the world, to be a grandmother. To have a hand and say in shaping the next generation. To have the respect of others, a place in the community of mothers and a say in how things are done. So, no biggie, really. We really must all be making a fuss about nothing…
Now, I am not for a moment trying to downplay how awful it must be to lose a child, a family. It must be like having your heart torn out of your body. But the grief of the childless-not-by-choice, whether through infertility or any of the other many reasons it didn’t happen, can be just as disabling, as life-changing.
We cannot grieve what we have not loved because grief, in my view, is part of love. And whether you held your children in your arms or not, if you grieve for them, you loved them. The children that childless women loved were real to them. And the loss of those children is real too. And without mourning those lost children, we will never ‘get over it’.
Not having children broke my heart. Why didn’t I have them? Well, it was a 15-year journey through infertility, denial, codependency and bad luck. (That’s the short version!) But grief healed my heart bigger. I am not the same person as I was before I grieved that loss. Because grief, like love, transforms us. We are never the same person again. What once was an open wound in my heart is now a scar – a tender spot – and it has changed me.
I have not ‘got over’ not having children, but rather my heart has healed around that loss. It is a part of me, a precious, tender part of me that gives me a depth of compassion for others who suffer that was always in me, but which now has fully blossomed in my character.
Loss like ours doesn’t have to ruin our lives – it can transform it:
- I have more courage now, because having healed this wound, I trust my resilience.
- I have more empathy now for all disenfranchised groups, because I understand what it is to be stigmatised.
- I have more patience and tolerance now for awkward and difficult people, because I know that each of us is carrying around invisible wounds, leaking pain from so many ungrieved losses.
- I have more faith in my own process (and life) now, because I have understood that grief is the gift of love, not a cruel kicking when I was at my most vulnerable.
But I couldn’t have done this alone. Grief, like love, cannot exist in a vacuum; it needs to be held in the tender heart and understanding of another.
In my experience, the only people who ever understood, really understood what it felt like to not be a mother, were women like us – the childless-not-by-choice. No one else ever understood the depth and breadth of my loss, my future, my identity as a woman, my place in society and amongst my peers. And in that understanding, my grief finally felt heard, held, understood. And so it did what it longed to do – it healed my heart so that I was ready to love life again.
Will you ever feel good about your life again? Yes, once you have done your grief work. But you cannot do it alone. Grief that is not actively grieved is a form of unrequited love, and just as painful. We need to stop demonizing grief as some kind of poison trying to deform our lives and instead see it as a form of love that wishes to heal your heart so that you are able to love yourself, your life and others again. You cannot wait grief out, and you cannot repress it (well, you can, but it comes up somewhere else instead…) Grief is patient and strong, like all love, and it will out-wait you. And you will grow ill and weary from the effort of trying to avoid it, out-run it, out-think it.
How to do your grief work? Seek the company of your fellow Gateway Women either online in our private online community or offline at a Gateway Women workshop or one of our many free meetups around the world. Read my book and work through the suggestions at the end of Chapter 4 (on doing your grief work). Read through some of the other blogs I’ve written her about grief. Watch my TEDx talk where I speak about the ‘gifts of grief’. Listen to my Woman’s Hour interview where I talk about the grief of childlessness. It’s time to get out of your head and preferably out of the house…
Not being a mother has left a scar on my heart that will always be there. Always be tender. And can be touched and bring me to tears for surprising reasons. But I can live with a scar, grow with a scar. Grief heals. Life goes on. And I am part of the flow again.
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Thank you for this post, Jody. And for all your others, though this particularly speaks to me at the moment. As you say, people don’t understand or get the significance of childlessness.
Had we had children it would have been a hugely significant thing in our lives, and people would “get” that. But it doesn’t lose its significance for not having happened. Now it is a hugely significant thing that hasn’t happened to us. But this significance is, I think, poorly understood by others.