Some time ago, a friend took my breath away with the following words, “I’m single and childless too, so I’m in exactly the same position as you are. I don’t feel the need to talk about grief so why on earth do you need to go on about it so much?”
She really caught me off guard – until that moment I had thought we had the sort of friendship where I could tell her anything that was going on with me and that she would care enough to listen to me. So, I was in a very open and vulnerable place in that moment. I had just shared something deeply personal about my experience of childless grief and I had assumed that she would listen without judgement. Her words hit me so deeply that I couldn’t speak, and simply had to end the conversation. We have never referred to that conversation again; I have never told her how wounded I was by her words. But the result was that I decided, for my own wellbeing, to put up a boundary. I have never spoken to her about my grief again; although she is still a good friend it no longer feels safe to share this part of my life experience with her. Another loss.
I know my friend cares about me, but I have never wanted to revisit this conversation with her, because I don’t think it would lead anywhere good. However, if I did decide to, I would tell her that I think she is wrong – we are not exactly the same, because no two experiences are the same. What was right for her would not have worked for me. She has found a way to accept the circumstances of her life, seemingly without grief, but my path was different. I didn’t know whether I was going to survive my childlessness. My way through has been to explore with curiosity all aspects of my experience, to embrace my grief journey and to fully allow my feelings to come through without shying away from them. Through exploring my grief, I have learnt a huge amount about myself and now feel wiser, stronger, more resilient, and even more joyful than I was before. I am a deeply emotional and sensitive person – my emotions are how I experience and express my relationship with the world, and so this is how I like to communicate with my closest friends.
I probably wouldn’t tell her this, but I can see that my grief frustrates and upsets her, and I wonder whether my open expression of my grief touched something unacknowledged within her own life experience, which was too uncomfortable for her to approach.
I have another friend; we often share deeply personal experiences with each other, in a very open and honest way and I have always felt very safe in sharing with this person. I have been pretty honest about my grief and my life experiences, though I haven’t gone into very much detail. Her life situation is similar to mine, but (like my other friend) she is quite accepting of the cards that life has dealt her and does not really identify with my grief experience. She has, however, experienced some bereavements in her life. Therefore, I was quite surprised recently when she said to me that she felt that I was ‘stuck’ in my grief and that it was time to move on. I was a bit shocked at this unsolicited advice, and the realisation that she has been judging my way of grieving. I do understand, I think – perhaps she feels that my grief is less valid than hers because nobody has died. I wonder if she thinks that grief is like an illness that you have to suffer through and then recover from, and that it is long past time for me to get back to normal.
I don’t think she is right. I don’t feel stuck, but rather I feel that my grief is like a journey that I’m travelling. I’m no longer in the same bleak, raw country that I was stumbling through five years ago, when I didn’t know how to live with the pain. Today I’m in much gentler country, where things are growing and changing around me. I still consider myself to be grieving, although it is probably much less visible to others these days. It feels to me like a flowing, though, rather than a stuckness. So, it does sting, a little, to be misunderstood and judged by a friend like this.
Neither do I agree that this experience is something to get over or move on from. The implication is that I need to go back to normal and return to being who I was before. But that person no longer exists – I am somebody new now and I have been forever changed by my loss. Wishing to be the old me is futile – and I’m actually pretty happy with the person I have become through surviving this experience. ‘Getting over it’ is not on my agenda.
Although these judgements do still sting a little when they happen, they don’t have the power to really shake my foundations, as they once did. I have learnt to accept the limitations of my loved ones, to believe that they care for me and support me as much as they are able. I know now that I need to carefully choose who I share my grief with (and I don’t always get it right), and I need to have firm boundaries in place. I have been very lucky, in recent years; my friendship circle and my wider community is now full of wonderful people who do understand this grief and with whom I feel safe to be open and authentic about my feelings.
I no longer depend just on old friends who may have fully understood and accepted the old ‘me’, but who don’t recognise this new version of me and therefore don’t want to see or hear about the new ‘me’, grief and all. And these days, when acquaintances ask me about my life, I might give them the headline, “I’m childless not by choice”, but I will rarely go further than that. I have experienced judgemental reactions too many times and I frankly can’t be bothered to justify my choices and my grief anymore. So, around the time in the conversation that they say, predictably, “Have you ever thought about adoption”, I will say something like, “I’m sorry, but I cannot talk about this”. And (usually) they accept this with good grace and move on. My strategy works pretty well.
I’ve been pondering, lately, the widespread assumption that grief has an end date. I’m not sure that it ever does, for some losses. I think the raw wound may heal but that there may well be a scar that never fades. Love can go on for ever, so why not grief?
Perhaps ongoing grief is a common aspect of the more intangible losses such as childlessness, or extinction or climate grief. With an intangible loss, there may be no grave to visit, as a focal point for your grief. If you are grieving the non-existence of something or the potential non-existence of something there is often no death date, no start date before which you were not grieving, and after which you began to grieve. Hope may diminish so gradually as to be imperceptible, so you may not even know when your grief began. When does anticipatory grief become grief of something ‘actual’? Only you can decide the end point of your own hope. And only you can decide when, or whether, your grief ends. And if our grief does go on for ever – why is that a problem?
I am a living, functioning, growing, and grieving woman. I do not see grief as incompatible with a full and happy life; indeed, I feel that a truly full life is one which can embrace and welcome all aspects of human experience, without shying away from those which are generally perceived to be less positive.
These experiences and reflections have brought to mind the wise words of Megan Devine, author of the wonderful book, “It’s OK that you’re not OK’. She has coined a phrase, Grief Shaming, which she describes as:
Dismissing or downplaying another person’s grief experience
Comparing grief experiences (‘my grief is worse than yours’)
I recognise this grief shaming from so many interactions I have had with friends and acquaintances over the years, and certainly from the two conversations I’ve described above. It is so helpful to be able to point to this behaviour and to understand it; it stops me from internalising that sense of shame and helps me to stand strong with my boundaries in place, confident that I’m grieving in the way that I know is right for me.
I refuse to allow anyone, no matter how much I love them, to succeed in shaking my faith in what I know is necessary for my own wellbeing.
During the deepest years of my grieving, I felt frozen. Time was ticking on, inevitably, but I was just frozen, stuck in despair and desperation. Lost.
I’d lost any sense of who I was, any purpose, and any hope. It felt like that was how it would always be.
But, having done a lot of grieving and faced some very desolate times, I now feel like something is finally changing for me.
I have realised that some of the coping mechanisms that I turned to in my grief have accidentally become important parts of the new life that I am living now.
One of the main things that I have by my side now is creativity. During my darkest moments I felt least understood by others, least heard and least seen; I knew that I was crying out for a way to express my pain, and I realised that I needed to try art as a means of expression. I was very scared of this, having always ‘known’ from my earliest years that I had no creative ability. But I was very motivated to try and learn how to express my own pain. I was so lucky: I managed to find a wonderfully gentle and supportive drawing teacher, who nurtured my learning, soothed my fears, and bolstered my very shaky confidence – and somehow managed to turn me into an ‘artist’! Nobody has been more surprised by this than me! But it gives me such comfort to know, now, that I have this to turn to when I need to express something. And it is more than that – for the first time in years I feel a sense of excitement and achievement in my own abilities. Who knows where this new path might lead me? It will be exciting to find out where this takes me.
Something else that I depended on in my grief was nature. I’ve always felt a sense of deep connection with the natural world, and I’m often deeply moved by the beauty that is all around us, just waiting to be noticed. What I hadn’t expected to find, though, was how interconnected the natural world was with my grief. It turns out that great comfort can be found while grieving with nature. Trees, grass, water, the sky, and animals can soak up endless quantities of tears, can listen to my story, absorb my rage, bear witness to my despair – and always provide solidity, reliability, and strength in return. And an important learning for me, in observing the continuous cycle of death, decay, renewal, rebirth of nature: whenever something dies, something else always, always comes to life.
This has unexpectedly fostered in me a sense of spirituality in nature, the holiness that lies within anything wild, and so my grief journey has become a journey of spiritual exploration, almost by accident. I certainly never intended that to happen, but that’s what it has become. I find myself, now, taking fresh steps along this path. I am delighted that I am walking, now, not just with grief but with curiosity, a sense of joy, and a kind of grateful excitement about whatever discoveries lie ahead in my future.
There have been many other gifts that I’ve found along the way, which I carry with my now, such as the pleasure to be found in silence, in stillness, in solitude. The joy of wild swimming or stargazing. The comfort of deep, vulnerable connection with someone who can allow themself to also be vulnerable with me. Singing and dancing (both of which scared me in my ‘before’ life). I am more open now to adventure now, to pleasure, to joy, to grief. I am more alive than I was before. I am actually much more ‘me’ than I was before – this is something that I feel very grateful to have discovered.
I do not think that I would necessarily have made any of these self-discoveries if I had been busy raising a family these past ten years. I would have other joys, other gifts in my life, no doubt, but I’m not sure that I would have these. So, I am choosing to be grateful, as I step towards whatever exciting things lie ahead.
What does it feel like to be me? How do I manage to get out of bed in the morning; how do I find a good enough reason to bother? How do I keep doing it day after day, when sometimes it feels like there is nothing stretching out ahead of me in my life but a succession of further losses and then death.
I wish they would ask me what I have to look forward to, what my dreams are, what my hopes are. Ask me to explain what it feels like when all hope has gone, when your reason for being, your identity, and your sense of who you are in this world has shattered. What is left?
I wish they would ask me how I motivate myself to go to work – who am I earning my money for? What is the point of doing it, day in, day out? Ask me why I continue to keep in touch with friends, with family, when their conversation, their presence, the circumstances of their lives can bring so much pain.
Ask me how I manage to leave my house anymore, when all around me I feel bombarded with the sight of people who have achieved my dearest wish, seemingly effortlessly. Ask how it feels when it seems like the universe is rubbing my nose in it, delighting in shoving things in front of me that just emphasise what I cannot have. How do I survive it? How do I not howl and scream when I finally pluck up the courage to venture out of the house and maybe go and sit in a café, only to find a couple with a newborn baby come and sit at the next table. Or how it feels to settle in for a long train journey, looking forward to some peace, and then the elderly women behind me spend hours talking of nothing but the joys of motherhood and how lucky they are to be grandmothers and how amazing their grandchildren are and what a precious and important job being a mum is. What does it feel like to be trapped by the ‘normal’ world in that way? What is that like – the feeling that there is no escape, no safe place in this world anymore? Ask me what it is like to feel tortured in my own home when new neighbours move in next door, and they have a baby and another on the way, and the walls are thin so I hear crying in the night, and when the sun shines I hear laughing and playing in the street, and all I want to do is close my window and shut the curtains and pretend that I am not here. What is it like to run away from my own home because it no longer feels like the only safe place I have in the world?
Ask me how it is that my eyes cannot rest on a baby or a child or a pregnant woman anymore – they seem to just slide over her or him and then I have no choice but to look the other way. Or why I can’t enjoy watching tv anymore or films, or reading novels, or joining in conversations. Ask me how it feels to walk down the street and feel like I am tiptoeing through a minefield – because at any moment an unexpected blast of pain could assault me.
I wish somebody would ask me how it feels when I’m at a party, or a conference, or on the bus and somebody says, ‘do you have children?’, or, ‘do you have a family?’, or, ‘how many kids do you have?’, or some such ‘innocuous’ question, and I have no good way to answer without killing the burgeoning conversation, or making up some lie, or revealing my deepest heartbreak to a stranger.
Ask me what people say when they learn I am childless. Does it make me feel better when people say ‘have you considered adoption’, or, ‘lucky you – mine are nothing but trouble’, or ‘if you want it enough, you will find a way’, or ‘there’s always hope’, or ‘you can have mine if you like’? Does it help when friends say, ‘I don’t understand why you are still grieving this’, or when a family member says, ‘I do wish you’d make an effort to be cheerful – you’re bringing everybody down’?
Ask me whether it hurts me when all of my colleagues in the office joke or complain about something their kids got up to, or the fact that they have to attend yet another tedious nativity play, or how tired they are because their baby is teething; or when they coo over the latest photo or talk about maternity leave or due dates or birth plans or Mother’s day or stretch marks or morning sickness or labour pains or childhood illnesses or birthday parties or the naughty step or reading progress or SATs or homework or detention or being a taxi service or Christmas shopping or falls and scrapes or funny behaviour or frustrating behaviour or irritating behaviour or babysitting or the good schools or school holidays or…or…or…
Ask me what my dreams are now, ask me whether I mind that I’ll never be a grandparent, ask me whether I wonder what my children would have looked like, whether they would have inherited my straight hair and my sense of humour, or their father’s whatever. Ask me whether I miss the cuddles, the tantrums, the exhaustion, and the pain. The feel of them in my arms and the smell of their hair and the sight of their tiny fingers and toes.
Ask me what their names would have been.
Ask me whether I am frightened of dying alone, or living alone, or being ill, or having dementia, or falling and having nobody there. Am I frightened of having nobody to advocate for me when I cannot do it for myself?
Ask me whether I mind not becoming somebody’s ancestor, or not having anyone to leave my legacy to. Does it matter that my precious possessions will probably not be valued or kept by anyone when I’m gone, or that nobody is likely to visit my grave? Ask me if it matters that my surname dies out with me.
Ask me what it felt like when my hopes were dripping slowly through my fingers, month by month, year by year, inescapably. Ask which is worse: the last desperate hope or the grief that sits alongside it. Ask me whether it was a relief to finally put hope away and pick up grief fully, which had been making itself comfortable within my house for years, anyway.
Ask me if carrying this grief around, invisibly, is exhausting. If sometimes I’m just too tired to get up and pretend that everything is ok. If I sometimes retreat to the nearest toilet cubicle to cry over that thoughtless comment, that shared photo, that pregnancy announcement, that unempathetic response, that intrusive question, that assumption about my life. Ask me whether I am still the same person that I was before this happened (or rather didn’t happen). Ask me if I think I will ever ‘get over’ this, or whether the changes that this grief has wrought are permanent scars that I will always carry.
Ask me if I mind suddenly being ‘other’, suddenly becoming a minority, an oddity, somebody who doesn’t ‘fit’.
Ask me whether I mind never seeing somebody like me in an advert or as the hero in a story.
Ask me how it feels when somebody says, “As a mother…”, as if they have the monopoly on empathy; or when a politician talks about ‘hard-working families’, or when somebody jokes about how easy it must be to be childless during lockdown, or assumes that we must all be dripping with spare cash and sleeping peacefully every night, after spending our days enjoying ourselves sipping cocktails with hordes of carefree friends.
Ask me whether I sometimes feel shame and shamed, whether I get judged by other people for having failed at being a proper adult, for having nothing to show for my life. Do I feel that? Do I blame myself? How have I found ways to forgive myself and recognise that sometimes it is just down to luck and that I have been unlucky when others, seemingly less worthy, have been lucky? Do I sometimes rage at god, at the universe, at my luck, at my past boyfriends, and my parents, and my upbringing, and myself?
I wish someone would ask who in my life understands and supports me, and who does not. Ask me how many friendships have fallen by the wayside in this grief. How many new friends have I found through my grief? Have I managed to make friends with myself?
Ask me how I have survived.
Ask me what I have done to grieve my griefs, and what this has taught me, and how I have grown and thrived. What strength have I found within myself to get through this? What can I do now that I could not do before, and what new skills have I learnt, whether I wanted to or not? What other emotions come in the wake of grief – do I find myself more receptive to joy now, having been broken open by grief? Ask me what are the gifts in my grief.
Ask me if I would swap these gifts for a chance to become a mother.
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.