I used to have a safety net. It was just a feeling, but it
was very real. And the funny thing is that I didn’t notice it was there until
It has gone now, but I remember it well. It was a sort of confidence in the universe, a sort of faith or certainty that everything would somehow work out alright in the end. Not very logical, I agree, but it was absolute and unwavering and always there. It didn’t really matter what I did or didn’t do in life, or whether things were tough at times, because eventually, when it really mattered, things would just work out. It would be ok in the end. There would be a balance of good luck to counteract the bad luck, happy times to outweigh the sad ones. And the general order of things would be maintained. The things that were supposed to happen would happen. My life milestones would be reached without any difficulty.
There was never any awareness of exactly how it would
work out, just that it would.
For example, I always took it completely for granted that my
life would turn out to have the same kind of shape as my parents’ life did, or
my friends’, or the life of everyone else I saw around me, or the way novels,
films and TV showed life to me. At some point in my twenties I would meet a man
and we would fall in love with each other and then get married and then have
several children. And, indeed, this is what has happened to almost everyone I
know. Maybe not in their twenties – things have changed; but certainly at some
point in their thirties. But it didn’t work out that way for me – not through
lack of wanting it or trying to find it, or wishing or praying for it, or doing
everything I could to achieve that outcome. And gradually my confidence that ‘things
would just work out’ started to diminish. I knew by my late thirties that I was
cutting it a little fine, but things would somehow work out ok, because they
just had to. Any other outcome was inconceivable and I couldn’t allow myself to
By my early forties I was really frightened because I couldn’t
see how the universe was going to manage to work everything out in the way it
had to be, but I still had some hope left that somehow, miraculously, it would.
But it didn’t.
Around the age of 44, I got real and my hope left me. And with it, this safety net, this feeling of the universe having my best interests at heart. A security blanket of reassurance to wrap around you when scary things happened. “It will be alright in the end”: I’ve woken up to the fact that this is the story I have been soothing myself with my whole life. It worked really well when I was a child, but I have learnt that it is a lie. Of course the universe doesn’t have my back – why should it? Terrible, unfair and undeserved things happen to good people all the time. I’m not special, so why should things miraculously work out the way I want them to? Sometimes, in low moments, I feel like the universe is actually trying to torture me (for unknown reasons), such as when I need a moment of peace and a heavily pregnant woman or someone with a newborn baby comes and sits down next to me on a train or in a café, or when someone at work asks me if I ever wanted children or why I don’t just adopt, or when my heart feels so broken that I’m surprised I am still alive.
But most of the time I realise that it is all completely
random and that there is no reason why things didn’t work out the way I desperately
wanted. It isn’t my fault, and it isn’t the fault of god or the universe. It is
just that I had it wrong all along – and sometimes things just do not work out
in the end. Sometimes things just are not ok and will never be ok. Sometimes
our worst nightmares do come true. And we have to learn how to live without
that treacherous safety net – it was never real anyway.
When my hopes of becoming a mother left me, all of my other
hopes departed at the same time – it seems that they were all interconnected.
When I ceased to believe that things would be ok, I found my eyes opened to a much
clearer view of our shared future on this planet. I stopped believing that
things would work out ok, in terms of humans waking up to the damage that we have
caused to the climate and to our biodiversity. I had been hopeful for the
previous couple of decades, and had been trying to change things in every way I
could think of, knowing that somehow, eventually, we would all wake up and fix
the problems we had caused on this planet, and that everything would be ok. But
when I stopped kidding myself in one area, I couldn’t continue to delude myself
in other areas. So all of my hope went. I now no longer feel any sense of
denial that we are heading for very dark times – it seems impossible to avoid
the future we have driven ourselves towards and I don’t believe that everything
is going to work out ok in the end.
It makes the world a lot scarier, I can tell you. Living
without hope or expectation is very hard and I don’t quite know how I’m doing
it, but I can tell you that it is possible. Things like resilience, determination,
integrity, and respect are what keep you going when you reach this place,
instead of hope and faith. I no longer expect things to be ok in the future, even
if the alternative is unimaginable. I do feel that hope is a kind of denial and
is perhaps no longer helpful for us. Maybe the world needs more of us to live
without that kind of denial, in these dark times. If we can bear to face
head-on towards our likely future, then maybe we can mitigate some of the worst
of it before it arrives. But if we continue to stick our fingers in our ears
and lie to ourselves that ‘surely it’ll work out alright’, then I truly think
we are in trouble.
Unlike the random chance of whether or not somebody will get
to have children, there are actually things that can be done to change our
future on this planet; we don’t have very much of a chance left, it is true,
but we do know that if we continue not to act it will be much worse for us than
if we start to act now. So I think we should act now, not in hope, but in
determination to do the best we can in a terrible situation. We can grieve for what
we know is lost and what we’ll lose in the future, while also working to preserve
whatever we can of life on this planet. And we must do this hard work ourselves,
because I don’t think the universe has our backs anymore.
In recent years, ONS in the UK has reported that 1 in 5 people reach their mid-forties without having children, and there are similar statistics from other countries including the US.
One of the many painful things about unwanted childlessness is that other people tend to assume that if you don’t have children, you didn’t want to have them. And while this is true for lots of people who remain happily childfree, it is also likely that many others without children experience some grief around their childlessness.
In fact, of the 1 in 5 people who reach their mid-forties
without having children, only approximately 10% have chosen the childfree path.
The remaining 90% are childless not by choice. And you might be forgiven for
assuming that most of these people have experienced medical infertility.
Actually, medical issues preventing pregnancy account for only a small
proportion (perhaps another 10%) of those childless not by choice. The vast
majority find themselves childless by circumstance.
And there are many many different circumstances that can lead to unwanted childlessness. As Jody Day, founder of the wonderful Gateway Women community (which provides support for women struggling with unchosen childlessness) says, “The room called childlessness has many doors; not just the ones marked ‘didn’t want’ or ‘couldn’t have’. She has written a blog post called ’50 ways not to be a mother, though she reckons that she has identified more like 100 ways since she started counting them. It could be anything from lack of a suitable partner to lack of money, lack of support systems, other health factors, or a whole host of other reasons.
So, for every 100 women in their mid-forties, 20 will not have children. Two of those will be childfree by choice (didn’t want children) and 18 will be childless by circumstance, and quite possibly in the throes of their silent, invisible grief. It isn’t quite as black and white as this, of course, and there are many shades of grey in between definitely not wanting kids and definitely wanting them – there is a whole complex area of ambivalence for many women who find themselves in circumstances which aren’t ideal for having children.
For many of these childless women, the last years when they are still hopeful of becoming a mother and the years when they have to accept that this will never happen for them are the most painful times in their lives. Many women find that they struggle to cope with everyday life, and it is common to feel depressed, isolated, even suicidal, as it can seem like they are the only person in the world who feels like this.
In part, this is because the subject of childlessness is such a taboo in our society that it is very hard to find people to talk to about our feelings. It is common for women to think that they are going mad, before they realise that what they are feeling is actually grief.
And, of course, it isn’t only women who suffer from this grief. There is a lot less attention paid to childless men, and fewer resources out there to support them, but thankfully there is increasing recognition of their pain. Hopefully a support community for childless men will soon come into being; as far as I know there is not one yet.
It is a kind of disenfranchised grief, which means that it is widely misunderstood and unrecognised. The pain of having your feelings judged, ignored, belittled, denied, or ridiculed can make the grief itself that much worse. It is shocking, considering the numbers of people dealing with this, that it is such a hidden grief that even many grief counsellors are unaware of it and therefore may do more harm than good when their help is sought.
Many of us have had the experience of having to educate our own counsellors about what not to say and what is helpful to us.
Brene Brown has said that childlessness is one of the major
areas of empathy failure, and empathy failure is certainly a very common
experience for those of us living with this grief. This increases our feelings
of isolation, and removes our sense of safety in being authentic with others;
when our pain is so often received without empathy and we so seldom receive a response
which helps us, then it is natural to withdraw and to close off from people and
hold our pain close to our chests.
For this reason, it is vital that those suffering in this way seek the help of others who are able to provide understanding and support. It is very difficult for people who are not in this position to understand why it is so painful – either they didn’t want children so find it hard to empathise with our grief, or they were able to have their own children and can’t imagine what it must feel like not to have them.
Many people make the assumption that you cannot grieve for what you have never had.
But other childless women (and men) can and do understand. Even a decade ago there were no support networks or groups for childless women, but these days it is becoming much less of a taboo and more and more communities are arising. One of the first was Jody Day’s Gateway Women community, which has thousands of members from all around the world now, and which provides some invaluable resources to those suffering and those who feel alone.
There are also Gateway
Women meetup groups worldwide now, so you can join up and go along and
socialise with women in similar positions as you – it is so helpful to meet others
and it can really help to ease that feeling of isolation.
There are also many other resources for those grieving
unwanted childlessness. Here are just a few of them:
There are many other books and resources out there, and I’ll
be adding these in future posts.
The most important thing to know, right now, though, is that
you are not alone. There are many of us out there who do understand. Finding
ways to connect with others who understand is invaluable and can really help
you, if you find yourself grieving this loss.
How do we even begin to grieve these losses, these extinctions? How do we grieve the enormity of the breakdown of our climate?
Is it not appropriate to feel these emotions (grief, anger, desolation, hopelessness, guilt, fear, frustration, anxiety, depression, emptiness, and denial), given what we know about what is happening, and given the threats to our very existence? As Jiddu Krishnamurti famously said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” (Charles Eisenstein talks about this very thing here https://charleseisenstein.org/video/it-is-no-measure-of-health-to-be-well-adjusted-to-a-profoundly-sick-society/.) My view is that these feelings shouldn’t be avoided but need to be talked about openly, as a step on the path to fixing the mess we have created, i.e. changing our sick society into one which works in harmony with the natural world, rather than in an exploitative way. Grieving and expressing our anger and our sorrow and our rage will help us to connect to ourselves and each other, and will make it easier to move through these paralysing feelings and into action.
How do we reconcile the guilt we feel over humanity’s role
in this destruction? Can we ever forgive ourselves?
How do we live with this existential fear of our own
extinction hanging over us? How do we cope with our fear for ourselves and for
the next generations?
One way to start is by remembering those that have been lost; by honouring them and trying to ensure that their existence was not meaningless. There is a sacred duty of remembrance that we bear, I believe. We must remember all that have been lost, even though only a small proportion were actually known to us by name. We must remember them all.
I’ve always liked the idea of the ‘tomb of the unknown soldier’ – a feeling that it was somehow overwhelmingly important to remember those who were lost beyond our ability to name them. The idea of this came out of the horrors of the First World War, when so many died that some soldiers were buried without their names being known. This unknowing remembrance has become a sacred duty in so many countries, and the tomb of the unknown soldier is still honoured today.
In just this way, I believe we have a sacred duty to remember those creatures and plants who have existed and then ceased to exist without ever being known. There have been so many of them.
In the same way, I also believe we have a duty to remember all humans who have died unmourned and unremembered. It is the same sacred duty of remembrance.
Joanna Macy says, “We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time.”
We are in a unique position as human beings: to be alive
right now, at this precise point in the earth’s history. Never before have we
knowingly faced the possibility of our own extinction, and never have we known
that we have brought this situation on ourselves. Human actions have caused
climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.
Not only that, but, knowing that our actions were leading to
the destruction of our world, we have continued, even accelerated, down the
same path through ignorance, avoidance, denial, greed, or short-term gain. Our
powerlessness to halt our own destructive stupidity should be the trademark of
our species, rather than our intelligence.
Is it any wonder that these realisations are causing us to
recognise a new kind of affliction which is facing so many of us? Feelings of
grief, anger, desolation, hopelessness, guilt, fear, frustration, anxiety,
depression, emptiness, and denial are rife in the world today. It may well be
that our existential concerns about Earth and humanity’s future are what are
underlying the mental health epidemic which is facing Western society today. This
‘climate grief’ is a newly recognised phenomenon, but one which is increasingly
being talked about and taken seriously.
And it isn’t just our own future destruction that we are grieving. We have created a situation in which we are facing a massive extinction on this planet, through loss of habitats, the introduction of invasive species, and climate disruption. We are losing so many species, the most since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and we know that we are causing this mass extinction phase ourselves. Currently we are losing around 200 species every day (1,000 times the ‘natural’ rate), and are facing a potential loss of 50% of all species on the planet within the next 30 years. According to the IUCN, more than 27,000 species are threatened with extinction; and that is just the species we know about.
We are causing the loss of well-known animals such as rhinos
and tigers and polar bears, as well as those we have never had the chance to
see, or to name. Many have been destroyed before we had the chance to see them.
Not just animals, but plants and trees and other organisms. They are
disappearing forever, these unique beings who are the final results of millions
of years of evolution. Gone. Because of us. They are impossible to replace and
our ecosystem, what survives of it, will be immensely poorer for their loss.
Every creature had a place in this system, and the system is diminished without
This kind of grief is almost the opposite of a death loss.
This is the absence of a birth, any birth, ever again. It is almost
unimaginably vast, as a loss.
As Joanna Macy says, “This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings.”