If you’ve hit your 50s without having any children or having a steady relationship, chances are you’ve been considered almost an outcast. Wrongly judged as picky or career-obsessed, the subtext you might read on people’s faces when they realise you are childless is: “what’s wrong with you?”.
Whether it’s by choice or not, being childless is a situation that many in our society still consider as a problem, failing to understand the multiple reasons and motivations behind it. Most of the time it’s not because of infertility or because we have been busy climbing the carreer ladder not to notice the biological clock ticking. There is another kind of childlessness, one that is still mostly absent from our cultural narrative: women who are childless by circumstances.
Across the globe, millions of women are reaching their mid-forties without having had a child, and in much greater numbers than their mother’s generation – says Jody Day, British founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women, and the author of ‘Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children‘. -Although some are childfree by choice, most didn’t choose this and are silently struggling in a life they didn’t foresee. Most people think that women who aren’t mothers either ‘couldn’t have’ or ‘didn’t want’ children: the truth is much more complex.
Some childless people are with partners who already have children and who don’t want more of them, others were unable to find a suitable partner to have children with. They might have had to help care for dependent family members, or they might not have felt they could afford to have a child.
But rejecting the stereotypes society feeds is hard. According to Jody Day, we need a different message: that even if you don’t get pregnant, you can have a good life. How? By Grieving the loss, regaining energy, and reinventing oneself positively and with purpose.
Living The Life Unexpected
The childlessness rate in the UK is around 20% for women and 25% for men and The Institute of Public Policy Research estimates that, by 2030, there will be two million people aged over 65 without adult children, up from 1.2 million in 2012. In particular, where one in five women is childless, an estimated 80% of older women are childless due to circumstance, rather than choice or infertility.
Jody Day herself is childless by circumstance. But after a grieving process, childlessness no longer defines her identity. Today she leads a large network – ‘Gateway Women‘- that has reached hundreds of thousands of ladies worldwide, supporting them with rethinking their lives, helping other women realise they’re not alone and move forward.
In fact, joining a community of women facing similar challenges can provide an important source of emotional support. As well as writing down how you feel, whether in a private diary or online, can help you process your pain.
So many of us are carrying so much shame attached to our stories – she writes in her book- but when we hear others tell theirs and begin to notice that we don’t automatically think badly of them for how things turned out, we begin to consider easing up on ourselves. And once the energy formerly used in beating ourselves up starts going towards healing and growing well, it creates a space for new things to start happening.
The Otherhood: alternative ways to use your maternal energy
If you’re having difficulty conceiving or are childless because of your life’s circumstances, there are other ways to share your maternal instincts and develop meaning in your life. For example, you could mentor a less experienced work colleague or provide spiritual guidance to a younger relative. You can also engage your nurturing instincts by spending lots of time with and devoting attention to nieces and nephews.
For Melanie Notkin, the New York City-based author of ‘Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness‘ and founder of savvyauntie.com, an online community for ‘cool aunts, great aunts, godmothers and all women who love kids’ :
Every moment an aunt spends with nieces and nephews is filled with her generosity of spirit and devotion. Babies are born from the womb. Maternity is born from the soul. There are many ways to mother.
In ‘Otherhood’, Melanie Notkin aims to reassure women that they are not alone and encourages them to find happiness and fulfillment no matter what the future holds.
It is time that we acknowledge the valuable role childless people play in society – she says-. We are entitled to help shape the next generation and can have insights that parents don’t have. Childless people use less resources and help pay for the resources that children need; mostly, we do so willingly. Yes, we may need more support when we’re elderly, but we will have contributed a lot by then. If we silence, shame and ignore a huge percentage of our mature women – she explains- we are missing the chance to create a more compassionate and just society. I choose not to agree with our culture’s view that as a single, childless woman there’s something broken about me. By allowing myself to grieve the loss of my longed-for identity as a mother, I’ve created a space for a new identity to blossom.”.
According to Melanie Notkin, recognising the value of “Generation PANK” (Professional Aunts No Kids) as influential women in children’s lives is the key to a new meaningful approach.
Rather than thinking of PANKs as childless or childfree-by-choice, we should consider them “childfull” women who choose to love the children in their life: “a sizeable tribe of child-loving, affluent women without children of their own”.
Whether you’re childless by choice or circumstances, sharing your paths and bonding with other sisters is the way forward. In the end, as the American actress Jennifer Aniston states: “We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete. We get to determine our own ‘happily ever after’ for ourselves”.
Jody Day will be keynoting at ‘Storyhouse Childless‘, in Chester (UK). The event co-curated by Chester Gateway and Dr Dawn Llewellyn, takes place on Sunday, November 10, and is a day specifically for anyone who is childless not because of choice – whether that is due to infertility, circumstance, or other factors. It will be a safe space to raise awareness and challenge taboos. The events will address societal expectations, insensitivity and media stereotypes – in particular the narrative that childless individuals are less happy than those with children.
Tickets: 15 Day Pass in Advance (£20 on the day) | 10.30 am – 6.30 pm