When a new acquaintance first discovers that I don’t have children, the following things tend to happen:
Firstly, they invariably assume that I am childfree, that my childlessness was planned, chosen and wanted. Sometimes I leave them with their assumptions; they aren’t automatically entitled to my deepest pain, after all. Let them continue to believe in a world where people get to choose what they want, when it comes to parenting.
The next thing that often happens, in conversation, is that when they find out I am childless not by choice, they assume the cause is medical. Again, I usually let them assume this.
Very rarely, these days, will I ever get to the next stage, which is where I share that my childlessness is circumstantial, and that the particular circumstance is the lack of a suitable partner. In order to share this I would need to already know that they are empathetic, unjudgemental, and open minded enough to hold this precious confidence safely. Too many times in the past I have misjudged people’s abilities in this area and been hurt by the way their behaviour towards me changes. I can see it in their eyes: they are judging me as a failure, they are wondering what is wrong with me, because something clearly must be wrong with me, to have failed so completely to find a man in time. They have suddenly stopped seeing me as an equal and instead see me as someone to be pitied, someone who is deeply flawed, unlovable, tainted.
Or perhaps those are just my innermost thoughts about myself, which I’m transferring onto the other person; I don’t know. But I do know that what has too often been present in these moments of sharing, is shame.
So these days I will often be deliberately vague with new acquaintances. Let them assume. I choose to guard my truth carefully so as not to feel shamed by others’ reactions. I will probably say something like, ‘I wasn’t able to have children’ and let them make of that what they want.
The childless community that I belong to, Lighthouse Women (previously Gateway Women) welcomes childless women whatever their story and I’m so grateful to be a part of it. It was here that I first felt a sense of my right to my grief, my right to choose when or if I share my story, and my right to decide how much I want to share. Sadly, even here I have a sense of some kind of unspoken hierarchy, with the single and childless at the bottom. It isn’t intended and I suspect this is my own internalised shame speaking, but nevertheless the hierarchy exists for me. I remember the day, clearly, when I went to a meet up of childless women, the first I had attended. There were about eight of us there, all very lovely friendly women. I sat there and ate cake and listened to them all share their IVF stories. And I felt less than. I felt like a fraud, trying to join a club that I wasn’t really entitled to be a member of. Thank goodness for the ‘single and childless’ group within Lighthouse women, because this is probably the only place where the shame goes away.
People like me have never conceived, never really been in a position to try. We’ve never suffered a ‘real’, tangible loss, never seen a positive pregnancy test, never felt any changes inside our bodies, never got to the point of buying baby clothes or discussing baby names, or feeling that thrill of hope, of potential for the future. Often we’ve never had any sort of memorial, never had our losses noticed or acknowledged by closest family members or friends, never been given the right to our grief, to have our pain heard by those who care most about it. Our grieving has to be clandestine, unacknowledged, secret.
Sometimes when I have tried to speak about grief with people close to me, I’ve noticed that they look embarrassed or become impatient with me, or they try and point out all the positives and how it is best not to dwell on these things, or they’ve said something about it not being too late, or ‘if you want it enough you’ll find a way’.
Even in this blog, I decided to remain anonymous, because deep down I still feel a sense of not being worthy, not being ‘qualified’ enough to speak about grief. And I know that if I were to go public with family and friends, they would not understand how I can claim any kind of authority on grief. I feel they would be embarrassed for me, or would take personally what I say about disenfranchised grief.
I’ve often felt a sense of being a fraud while speaking of my own losses, my own grief, particularly when in the company of someone who has suffered miscarriages or been through the trauma of IVF. All I have to offer as my story is emptiness. An absence of something and a very personal sense of failure; in my bad moments it feels like this has happened to me because I am not lovable enough. Why haven’t the men I’ve loved, loved me? That’s the nub of the matter. I see reciprocated love around me, and it is the thing I envy most – that feeling of being with someone and knowing that you love them, and they love you back. To say I wish for that is an understatement. That is why, these days, what most triggers my grief is not a newborn baby or a glowing pregnant woman, but a wedding invitation. Being in the presence of other people’s love and hope for the future feels bitter to me, a reminder of what I wanted, and a reminder that the lack of it is the source of my worst pain. This envy is the thing I least like about myself, and I wish it wasn’t there, but there it is. Maybe one day it’ll fade.
In recent years I have done a lot of grief tending work, which I love. I’ve found that, in the grief tending community, you can find a safe place to release deeply held feelings which want to flow. I love the sense of lightness, relief and even joy that can come from this work. And yet. I don’t think I have often shared my full story there, even in that safely held place, that empathetic circle where judgement is withheld. I only recently recognised that I was keeping back this part of my story because of the shame; it goes so deep, right to the core, and I rarely feel safe enough to hold it up for other people to look at. So, in my grief tending circles I will usually say something vague about the grief of being childless not by choice. I will speak my children’s names out loud because this brings me great healing. And while I do it I am aware that those who are witnessing me are probably assuming that these children were real, in the sense that I actually conceived and then lost them. I let them assume that and, for a little while, it makes me feel like a more valid member of this club called grief.
Breaking taboos is hard, scary work and I’m not brave enough yet to abandon my anonymity. But I am brave enough, here, to say that I am childless not by choice. I am grieving. I am single and that was the cause of my childlessness. I chose not to pursue the path of single motherhood for many complicated reasons including financial ones. I chose not to try to have a child with a cruel man I dated for a short time, or with someone else who I didn’t think would be a good father. I chose not to follow the advice of several people who told me to go out to a bar and just sleep with someone to get pregnant.
I am not childless because I didn’t want it enough – I wanted it desperately. But I didn’t want it at any cost, particularly not at any cost to my child. I chose not to attempt to bring a child into the world in a situation which wasn’t healthy and that was my choice, the only maternal act of care I have ever been able to take for my beloved ones. I stand by that decision.
I am choosing to say this now, anonymously, because I want to reach a point, one day, where I feel fully entitled to stand in this circle as myself, without being ashamed of my story.